India (3 of 3): Dance Off / Freak Show / Guest of Honor Experience

I’m writing this somewhere over the Pacific on the way home from 16 days in LOMP – the Land of My People – India*.

I guess my favorite moment of the trip was the most surreal one & it happened late in my stay. It was this Dance Off / Freak Show (guess who was the freak) / Guest of Honor (guess who was the VIP) Experience at a wedding in Rajasthan. The pinnacle of that pinnacle was a surreal close-dance with a grinning 50 year old Rajasthani man with red betel-nut juice stains on his front teeth to “Who Let the Dogs Out” on 5 hours of sleep. I suggest trying this & trying and not to freak out. Go ahead try it. I dare you. 🙂

I’ll warn you now that this story is a little rambly, and I’m not sure it has a point (or a plot) but it is definitely amusing to me at least. It was one of those great travel moments when you find yourself outside your comfort zone and unexpectedly learn something about the world and the way you move through it….I was in the Indian state Rajasthan to see tigers (which I eventually did) and was staying at a high end hotel near the Ranthambore National Park. After another long long long & unsuccessful day of tiger hunting, I was exhausted and sleepy. But my curiosity had been piqued and my “you can sleep back home” ethic, all to common when I travel, had kicked in and propelled me out the gates of the hotel.

The siren song this night was the noise. God-awful, blaring, festive noise. Coming from three simultaneous Rajasthani weddings.

Our hotel was situated near 3 “banquet halls”. A banquet hall is a large enclosed outdoor area that contains one large open aired room with a stage. The primary, if not only, purpose of these halls seems to be weddings. To get the scene right, imagine a mazillion christmas lights all over the cement enclosing walls and entrance arch, and the open-aired hall itself. And lots of noise because there is always a DJ with a kitchen floor sized dance area and huge speakers in a corner blasting Hindi-pop. And the preferred volume of this (and seemingly everything in India) is fairly loud. Not aural-bleeding loud, though, because that is reserved for the grooms’ processions out in the streets, and the howitzer-shell (yeah I mean it) sounding fireworks which happen occasionally for hours.

Before I get into the groom processions though, remember that I have described just ONE banquet hall here. There were THREE within a 200 foot stretch.

But actually, these would have all sounded like three loud house parties – OK three REALLY loud house parties in the same 2 block radius, if not for the grooms’ processions. Yes, the real noise came in the form of small hot-dog cart size carts, each with a tiny stage, and 6 of those huge megaphone-like horn speakers hanging off the back, all pointed straight backward. The speakers were blaring music & the voice of the singer on the stage. Like crazy-loud. But that was necessary because you had to hear him over the car-engine sized gas generator that was powering the speakers (there may have been two generators). And that of course was competing with the marching band. Did I mention the marching band? Image a dozen Indians dressed up exactly like your high school marching band walking behind the cart, trying to play over the gas generator to accompany the singer. The band was arrayed on either side of the back of the cart, playing inward to a mass of men who were dancing with joyful abandon to the music, following that there was a group of men (generally older) walking along, followed by the horse. Seated on the horse was the remarkably grim-faced groom – done up in a turban and lots of tinsly bling-bling. Surround all of this by poorish looking kids carrying long fluorescent lights (like the ones in your office, though they had green ones in addition to the normal white ones) all wired together to the gas generator. Both the singer cart and the generator cart were being pulled by people. Oddly enough, it was very Burning Man somehow but you would have to replace dusty relatively-rich white people entertaining other dusty relatively-rich white people in a desert with dusty poor Indian people entertaining kinda poor to middle class people in a third world town street.

Since there were 3 banquet halls, guess what – there were 3 processions. And sometimes they passed one another. I’ve said the word loud a lot, so I won’t bother to mention it again here.

I have to say that if that all sounds overwhelming to the point of horrific, somehow it wasn’t. I’m not sure why. It really just seemed like a bunch of people having a blast. Maybe it was that I had been in India long enough to not mind the overwhelming bits, but I really think it was because the people seemed to be having such an honestly great and exuberant and warm time, and besides it was fascinating. And my curiosity and their exuberance is how we came to the Dance Off / Freak Show / Guest of Honor Experience.

But a little more back-story before we get there…. I had just eaten too much yummy Indian food at the restaurant’s dinner buffet, and was beat. But my driver was a few hotels away (at the el cheapo driver hotel) & I needed to tell him he was to sit around for yet another day** whilst I tiger-quested some more. I could have called but I thought I’d just walk & that way I could at least poke my head over the fences to observe the weddings.

The night before I had actually walked about the streets looking at the processions, but didn’t stay long. I had gotten a little intimidated by all the teenage boys who would just stand there and stare at me with absolutely neutral expressions on their faces. In the US, such blatant staring would be seen as a threat or at least a warning, and in a strange country and with my poor language skills I had opted for leaving. But now a day later, I had gotten used to the open staring more or less, and my confidence in my language skills was growing.

I walked out into the warm night and wandered up to the closest banquet hall. People were arriving by bike, car, foot, scooter, and motorcycle every few minutes in threes and fours. I edged over to the archway in the front and peaked in. There were tons of people milling about chatting and eating and everyone seemed happy. I noticed a knot of older men by the arch keeping an eye on me & was deathly afraid of being seen as some weird intruder as you would be if you just walked up to an American wedding and hung out in the doorway. But I noticed that nobody really seemed to mind, and that no one was checking for any tickets or anything at the door. People were just walking in and walking out as they pleased. So finally I screwed up my courage and in asked the men in horribly accented and terribly broken Hindi if I could “just look” and they nodded disinterestedly. I was hoping I could just walk in and take a quick peek unobtrusively and get out before I was a) noticed or b) seen as intruding on someone’s wedding. I look Indian to me so I thought maybe I could get away with it.

To Indians however, I only kinda look Indian. Evidently, there is also a neon light over my head somewhere that says “WESTERN TOURIST” in Hindi script. As soon as I walked in the archway, about 5 smiling little boys*** ran up to me and said “HELLO” heartily and as each vied for position to shake my hand. They didn’t do this with anyone else, and it was obvious that they were fascinated by and scared of me simultaneously. When I would shake their hands they would giggle and say hello again. So in a pathetic attempt to bolster my just-one-of-us-unobtrusive-Indians credentials, I would say “Namaste” and ask them their names in Hindi. This amused them no end and they would say their names proudly again in English, and run off to get their friends so they could meet the fun & funny foreigner. So much for unobtrusive. There was a constant stream of young boys coming up to meet me, and many would come for seconds. But no adult swooped in and asked what I was doing so I pressed on. Adults merely stared at me briefly and then continued about their way. Along the walls were tables where people were handing food to anyone and everyone. And there was a small pack of people on the dance floor area (it was lit from underneath with colored squares like in “Saturday Night Fever”, but was only about 10 feet by 10 feet).

Eventually though, my nerve gave out, and I walked out of the hall and proceeded down the street to the next banquet hall. I again asked if I could take a look, and again the scene repeated itself, complete with the boys at this wedding doing the same thing. Being me, this time I checked out the dance floor interestedly but left when I decided I was still drawing too much attention. I began to wonder if the fact that I was wearing shorts, which Indian men don’t seem to do, was the big clue that said “one of these things is not like the others”.

So I walked back to the hotel, and threw on my jeans, and walked back out. I also pulled off my bandana to aid in my “Just-a-Regular-Joe-Patel” unobtrusive-Indian disguise. Then I marched up to the third banquet hall, nonchalantly, walked in the door, and… blam… was once again kid central. Oh well. At least I didn’t seem to be offending anyone. But I really felt uncomfortable drawing so much attention to myself at someone else’s wedding, as that would be pretty offensive here.

One of the many things that struck me though was that everyone seemed welcome. I asked some of the boys about this and it seemed like everyone was – though I didn’t notice anyone really poor & god knows there were plenty of poor hungry people out on the streets outside so, in hindsight, there clearly was some barrier to entry.

Anyway, I left, and walked over to the hotel where the driver was staying to tell him again in broken Hindi that I didn’t know when I was leaving but definitely would be staying for at least the next morning’s safari.***

Having accomplished this, I was headed back to the hotel but decided to drop back in on the first banquet hall again. As I arrived, I noticed that a lot of young women had congregated near the archway, and I didn’t feel like trying to cross them as maybe things were now getting serious, as this was the first sign of something specific happening. Besides, my attention was soon drawn to the groom procession and the attendant noise and throng as it processed up the street towards me.

I stood amongst the parked scooters and motorcycles with various other spectators watching the procession approach. Nearby, there was a young spectator about my age & he even looked possibly western to me. Ignorant of my horrible accent, I casually asked in my best “Just-a-Regular-Joe-Patel” Hindi why the groom wasn’t smiling. He explained in English that he was nervous. Sometime thereafter he left and came back with a smiling older Indian gentleman. Who was of course staring at me, but very warmly. The VIP treatment had thus begun.

The man introduced himself as relative of the bride. I explained that I thought it was all very beautiful, and since I was actually outside the banquet hall, I didn’t bother to ask if it was OK. He was clearly very happy about the wedding and so I congratulated him. His English was decent and he took great pleasure in explaining things to me, though between his decent-but-basic English and my lame Hindi, I couldn’t quite ask all the questions I wanted. He was obviously very curious about me too. Quickly a throng of men and boys began to surround me to watch me watch the wedding.

Soon the guy I was talking too brought his brother to meet me & other friends & relations as well. This was exactly like what the little boys had been doing amusingly enough. He took great pleasure in explaining to all of them that I understood a bit of Hindi, which amused them all. He very graciously told me that my Hindi was good which I laughed off. As each man approached I would trot out my tried and true “I speak only a little Hindi – my mother and father are Punjabi, I am from U.S.A”. In addition to the 5 or so men around me, there were at least as many teenage boys, and at least as many small boys. Many of them were content to just stand 2 feet away from me and just look at me. The rest good-naturedly tried to ask me questions in their broken English, and try to answer my questions (in broken Hindi.) It was more than a little odd to be so surrounded and intently stared at (at such close quarters) but it was more amusing than frightening because everyone was in a good mood.

The gist of all of this was that they were incredibly happy and generous, and they wanted to me to understand what was happening. They also wanted to look at me. A lot. And ask me questions. I think my quasi-Indian-ness probably made me more fascinating than if I were white.

They were also proud of the fact that this was their culture and the “whole world was interested in Indian culture.” Thus, in an attempt to demonstrate my dutiful fascination withe Indian culture, I asked many questions. I had the best luck with the questions that I could formulate in Hindi. So I mostly asked them – even if I already knew the answer, just to make my interest more apparent. Unfortunately, I had hard time getting answers about whether everyone was invited or not. The relative-of-the-bride man had said yes, but he said that everyone of a caste was invited – but he might have meant “every caste” was invited just as easily from other things he said. But when I tried to get him to be more specific, he just said the same thing. Ah well. In hindsight, my guess is he must have meant everyone of a certain caste.

Anyway, all of this was going on maybe 15 feet from the blaring procession which was stopped in front of the archway. If this wasn’t surreal enough, another procession was crossing passing our stopped one, and both were blaring full bore. Add to this me looking at the processions trying to come up with questions in Hindi, encircled by 15 people all facing me watching me closely, some just staring expressionlessly for minutes at a time, others smiling good-naturedly and chatting with me and about me to each other.

Then it got more surreal. The talk had turned to how I must come inside and see the rest of the wedding and eat with them. The relative-of-the-bride man took my hand and pulled me forward into the wedding hall, surrounded by the throng still staring away.

I was under strict orders to be very careful about what I ate in India so as to avoid getting sick. Thus:

1) I knew I could not possibly eat the food.
2) I knew how important it is for guests to eat at all Indian functions.
3) I knew how absolutely ineffectual the word “no” is with Indians when they are being generous.

Thus alarms were going off all over the place for me: “Will Clearly Offend Them Now!” “Must Not Eat Food!” “Will Clearly Offend Them Now!” “Will Clearly Offend Them Now!” “Must Not Eat Food!” “Must Not Eat Food!”. It was clear to me that my control over the situation was slipping away, and as disturbing as that was, I was also fascinated and grateful – so I went with it – though a bit nervously.

Right about then, a younger guy who I had not met grabbed my hand and demanded that I come dance. Dancing was a) fun, b) something I enjoy c) something I’m good at, and d) and most importantly, not eating. The Hindi-pop that was blaring away was pretty danceable even though I knew I could not dance the way they did & wasn’t going to try unless they taught me.

Anyway I went with him to the dance floor. The boys (from 15-25 mostly) grabbed me (literally) and pulled me up onto the dance floor. But there was a group of girls dancing who didn’t like us taking up the space – it was clearly their time to dance. The boys mostly ignored their protests & started dancing at me (yeah “at” – you’ll understand soon), but I quickly jumped off the stage, not wanting to offend the girls, but the boys grabbed me again and pulled me back on stage, and tried to start dancing again. This cycle repeated a few times, until the girls left the dance floor. I was starting to get frustrated with the fact that people kept roughly grabbing & pulling me – however good-naturedly, but I was trying to go with it. When the women left, the boys started dancing seriously. I was determined to give a good account for myself (Represent!), but it was pretty hard because every few seconds someone would grab my hand hard and either yank me toward them or yank themselves over to me. They all wanted to dance with me. Also they wanted to dance a little to close to me – like couples-close here. It was pretty obvious that this was just a Indian-vs.-American sense-of-personal-space difference but it was still unnerving. I got the sense that I was both on display as an honored guest, but also kind of like a curiosity. It was weird and kind of fun, but it was staring to get scarier and more frustrating as I was losing control of the situation. Finally when people started grabbing me, I would forcefully yank my arm back, and make it clear that they weren’t to grab me any more. That helped. Then people would just jostle for position to dance with me. They were still too close, but I could handle it. Then for a brief moment the Hindi-pop gave way to a version of “Who Let The Dog’s Out” – a song I hate – but least it had a beat I could really dance to, and I had managed to carve out some space, so I was starting to feel a little comfortable & got my groove on for a bit****. The next hand that grabbed me turned out to be one of the 50ish yr old relatives of the bride I had met earlier, so I couldn’t brusquely grab my arm back as before. He close-danced with me for a while – and I didn’t dare pull away because he was someone in the wedding party and an older adult to boot.

Luckily after a minute or so, he took my hand and yelled over the noise that I simply must come eat with them. Danger! Danger! Danger! But me and my entourage left the stage and charged off over to the food. Over and over I kept repeating that I had already eaten and was full. Oddly enough it seemed to be working slowly but surely. Then a younger man I hadn’t met before (late 20s?) grabbed me and pulled me away and the “he-must-eat” lobby seemed to relent.

At this point I was surrounded by mostly younger boys, and my erstwhile rescuer. He seemed mostly just want to talk and ask me questions. I was happy to oblige and also shook hands with all the little kids who wanted to do so. It quickly dawned on me that this was a great opportunity to escape with a minimum chance of offending anyone since none of the kin folk seemed to be watching. I quickly explained that I was tired and briskly walked out as quickly and politely as possible, still shaking hands with kids as I left.

There you have it. In many ways this really highlighted how I was seen in India. It was clear to many regular Indians that I was a kind-of-Indian, kind-of-Western hybrid creature. A few times my relatives trotted out the Indian phrase “A.B.C.D.” – or American Born Confused Desi (Desi meaning Indian) – but I couldn’t disagree more.

I went to India wondering if I would have a “roots” experience or if I would feel somehow very different about myself or India or anything. But rather than be confused, India simply reinforced my general peace with who I am, which has never been really confusing. I am, as usual, very happy to be my left-coast eco-liberal fancy-pants-wearing San-Francisco-American self. I must say though that I am feeling more and more comfortable that I am somewhat-Indian (36 years of being non-white in the U.S. does take a toll underneath it all) – so I’ll give India that.

* And while in some sense that also means North Carolina, once again it seems obvious that it really can only mean my San Francisco: the place in the world where I expect to find people “like me” is always here.

**In a land where labor is dirt cheap, it is absolutely expected that the driver will happily just sit around all day till he is called. In fact I think he thought I was a bit soft for not calling him or demanding that he meet me at my hotel so I could tell him he had nothing to do that day. It would have been cheaper and easier to take the train to Rajasthan actually – but the plan had been that if I saw tigers sooner rather than later, I would have a driver to help me improvise the next bit….

*** Only one little girl ever dared to come talk to me and she was just a toddler & she quickly scampered off while shyly mumbling her name.

**** I am proud to say that I did, in fact, represent! On a few different occasions over the next day or so, random locals approached and said that they liked my dancing 🙂

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