Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Two Month Watsoversary

This one really snuck up on me. Although the first month of my Watson year was filled with many highlights, it also sort of plodded along. Things were so different that it felt like months and months had flown by since I had left the United States, although in reality, it had only been four weeks.

In contrast, my second month has flown by. My last few weeks in Indonesia were crammed with meeting contacts I finally had learned enough Indonesian to speak with and who I found because I got to know Ubud as a temporary home. I had friends to visit and errands to run and all of the other daily basics to take care of; daily basics that make you realize you’re not a tourist any longer. I loved that I had people to call to eat meals with me, I loved that the guys yelling, “Taxi? Transport?” on the street recognized me and would only shout that chorus as a joke, knowing I would turn them down. I felt like I was living there and as a result, the time flew by. And now I can’t believe I’ve been in India almost a week already.

I am still figuring out how to do this year. I probably will be figuring that out until next July. I’m always wondering how much I should be planning ahead and how much I should just be open to possibility. I’m finding that the hidden dull part of a Watson year is that actually you spend many hours scouring Lonely Planet guide books or in front of a computer screen trying to figure out where in the world you are, how to spend your time, and who might give you a bed to sleep in. Similarly, I’m still figuring out exactly how to research names and what I want the end result of all of this to be, and how I should be proceeding. There is the constant question of if I should be doing more.

Despite these questions, I think in the last month I have begun to hit my Watson year stride. I am feeling so so so happy to be doing this. I’ll have to remember this feeling for the days I feel more dubious about what on earth I am doing. I’ve been traveling on my own long enough now that I think my brain has finally gotten used to the fact that there is actually a permanence to this year of impermanence; in other words, the back of my mind that used to be waiting to go home has now accepted that this is it.

Today I was walking back from visiting a nearby ashram and I successfully navigated my way through Mysore and back to the Natarajan house on my own. I took a minute and stood at the top of their road and looked at Chammundi Hills and the sun going down and the cows eating grass on the side of the road and the auto rickshaws going by, and it hit me once again how very lucky I am. This year I am learning that it is actually so easy, so much easier than I ever thought it would be, to create a home.

In the last month I have:

-Seen the sunrise from the top of an active volcano.

-Swam in the Indian ocean (slight amendment from last month’s “seen the Indian ocean”).

-Been blessed with holy water from a 15th century shrine.

-Had the privilege of speaking with a village Sipu (guru/master) about names, culture and religion.

-Met with a Balian (psychic).

-Dealt with a bizarre tropical bacterial infection and a fever of 103 in a foreign country, gave praise to antibiotics and bilingual doctors, and now never want to have any blood drawn ever again. Also:

-Ridden on a motorcycle with a 103 fever.

-Received a Balinese angel.

-Been the first non-local to stay at one particular hostel in Padang Kerta, Bali.

-Become closer to being 23 years old than 22 years old.

-Been trusting people more (which is sort of a necessity if you want to cross the street in many East or South Asian cities…you basically start walking and have to keep repeating in your mind, “They will stop, They will stop…)

-Made friends I can call on for the rest of my life.

-Navigated my way through various Asian-style toilets.

-Become less analytical. A favorite Swarthmore professor once said that Swarthmore students tend to be really good at being critical and really good at being analytical, but they sometimes get too caught up in this approach and they forget to also have curiosity and wonder. Perhaps above all else, this year has given me many occasions for curiosity and wonder.

-Found a new home and then learned to walk away from it.

-Been more and more amazed by airlines that aren’t American. I had no idea that on most international airlines, they’ll serve you meals on any flight over 2 hours, and, most importantly, those meals can come with red wine (!)

-Set foot on two new countries (Malaysia and India).

-Learned the names and ingredients for countless South Indian dishes. (I have been enjoying Indian food so much that sometimes I can’t believe my good fortune that I get to eat THREE meals a day).

-Become a strategic traveler and realized there are times when I need to sacrifice what I actually want to do in the name of my own safety. I’ve learned to wear a head scarf when appropriate, slap on a fake wedding ring, and when to stay indoors even when I might prefer to be out adventuring. I’ve learned that, despite a tight budget, sometimes spending extra money on transportation or accommodation is worth it to feel protected.

-Learned more Hindu myths, gods, goddesses, and stories than I ever thought I would.

-Found immense strength in adaptation and flexibility.

-Ridden in an auto rickshaw.

-Again been overwhelmed by the love and support pouring in from home, and every bit of it that I receive, I am (again) reminded that there is no way I could be doing this without it. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for sending me well wishes when I was sick, for putting up with my shoddy Indonesian internet connections during skype dates, for sending e-mails and articles and facebook posts and blog comments, for keeping me updated on the current Swarthmore gossip, and for the exceptional gmail music attachments. The Watson Foundation doesn’t want us to be too tethered to home while we’re away, (to the extent that it distracts us from our present environments), so I’m trying to enjoy these things without being dependent on them. I can safely say that whether I need them or not, it sure makes the journey a lot more enjoyable (and gives it a much better soundtrack).

Happy Watsoversary. 2 months down, 10 to go, though at the moment, I’m not in any hurry for them to pass.

Do not mistake that "2" for a peace sign.

Monday, September 26, 2011


Downtown MysoreJust another pig on the side of the road.
View of Mysore with Chamundi Hills.

I came to India without much of an itinerary. Because I knew I had contacts to stay with here, I waited to seek their advice and recommendations before planning my seven weeks in great detail. Over the last 24 hours, I've been booking train tickets across India like it's my job. (Actually, it kind of is my job). I've been painstakingly prioritizing what I want to see here and I'm trying to accept that there's no way I can see it all. I'm trying to go to some places that will be interesting for my research and some places that I just have to see (i.e. I'm not going to India without going to the Taj Mahal).

Here's the current plan:

September 21st-October 7th: Stay in Mysore with various relatives of the Natarajan family and continue to do research.

October 7th-October 11th: Stay in Bangalore, mainly for sightseeing.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Indian Names: An Overview

My (very superficial) favorite part of waking up at 6:30am and going to temple with Savithri are the flowers in my hair.

Let me first say that this entry will be entirely inadequate. It feels a little futile to try and give an overview of Indian names when they vary so drastically based on what region. The Natarajans never fail to impress me because when they hear someone’s name, they will instantly say, “Oh, he must be from Goa” or “That’s a Tamil name.” Each name has a specific attachment to a region, to a deity, and to a story, and I am just beginning to explore these connections.

I included India in my project proposal because of the significance of names in the Hindu religion. In order to express devotion, most Indian Hindus recite a litany of the various names of Shiva or Vishnu. On a daily basis most Indian Hindus recite the “Sahasra Namans” (1,000 names) of the particular god they are a follower of. There is believed to be an immense of power derived just from the recitation of a name alone.

It makes sense that as a result, the names of people are very important. Most Indian parents choose a name for their child based on the 1,000 names of gods and goddesses. This means that every child’s name has a story that goes along with it. Similar to Indonesia, astrology is also immensely important to naming in India (as well as to setting up arranged marriages!). A child’s name is often chosen based on the day they were born. I was speaking to a man this morning whose name is “Ramasheshan” because he was born on the 9th day of the Chaitra (March-April) which is said to be the birthday of Lord Rama.

A naming ceremony (Namkaran) takes place when the baby is a few days old (in most regions, on the 12th day specifically). This is the day that the child’s horoscope is written and placed in front of a deity for blessings and a priest offers prayers for the family. At this ceremony, the father whispers the baby’s name in the baby’s right ear, often using some leaves or grass to speak through.

It is sort of impossible to understand the names here without understanding Hinduism, so I’ve been receiving nightly crash courses from the Natarajans. I’m realizing that although I knew the basics of Hinduism, I’m actually pretty painfully ignorant. I’m also realizing that really all of the information I know about India comes from Swarthmore English seminars that abound with post colonial literature by Salman Rushdie and Mahasweta Devi and Amitav Ghosh, who may not always be reliable sources when I’m discussing politics with contemporary academics here. (Having read these books has also earned me some instant friends here, however).

I’m trying to keep up and learn the rules for naming here, of which there are many. For example, many children are named after Indian rivers, which are thought to be sacred places. However, the names of rivers can only be used for girls (with the exception of two specific river names which are used for boys). Similarly, although most names are chosen based on astrology and the 1,000 names of gods and goddesses, the prefixes and suffixes to the name vary by region. In Southern India, for example, the name may be “Natarajan” but in Telugu it would be “Natarajou” or “Nataraja.” Based on whether someone’s name is “Lakshmanan”” or “Lakshman”, for example, you can tell where they are from.

I also finally figured out some basics in terms of the surname question. Many Indian names are written with initials at the front, for example, take “S.V. Subramanian.” Here is what the name actually means:

The first initial, “S” most likely stands for the name of the village where the person’s father is from. The “V” most likely stands for the father’s name itself. (The father’s name may have been “Vajra”, for example). “Subramanian” would be the child’s first name. As you can imagine, having no traditional surname makes things like filling out passport applications very challenging. In order to more easily engage in a global marketplace, many Indians have begun using one of the names that the initial at the front of their names stand for as a traditional surname. So when “S.V. Subramanian” fills out a visa application to visit the United States, he might write that his name s “Subramanian Vajra” instead even though he goes by “S.V. Subramanian.” Many women will use their husband’s or father’s first name as their surname towards a similar purpose. So although Savithri’s name is “B. Savithri” (B because her father’s name began with a ‘B’) when she fills out formal documents, she goes by “Savithri Natarajan” (using her husband’s first name as her last name). The trend of using a husband or father’s first name as a last name became a fashionable thing to do under British reign. The Natarajans explained to me that before then, it was very uncommon for Hindus to use a last name. For the most part, it still is.

The relationship between Indian Hindus and British colonizers is another part of the reason why I think that name studies are so popular in Mysore. When traveling between cities in India, I’ve found that people go back and forth between using the traditional name for a place or the anglicized name (Mumbai or Bombay, Bengaluru or Bangalore, for example). In this way, names have become a popular academic and political topic. To quote the scholar “Swapna Samel” who has an article called “Geographical Renaming of the Streets in the Mumbai” in a journal I was given called “Studies in Indian Place Names,”

The history of Indian cities are contained in the names of their streets and squares. These come in layers that have to be peeled off, one by one, to reveal the names that once lay below. A street might have been named after a colonial proconsul; later after a Congress nationalist; still later, after a local or regional hero. The names of streets and squares reveal a city’s preferences, cultural and ideological, as they change over the decades and through successive political regimes…The desire to change the names of places is not new. And usually, people who use the old names soon seem silly or out of touch. And often, the enthusiasm for changing names stems from valid impulses. We may laugh at the more recent attempts to change street names in India (does anyone call Connaught Place Rajiv Chowk?) but, equally, few of us would like to live in cities where every street was named after some colonial oppressor” (136).

There have been many renaming efforts over the last sixty years in India to restore Indian names to different cities, villages, streets and intersections. Rather ironically it seems that as these efforts have been underway, the names of people have become increasingly anglicized. I’m really curious to explore this inverse relationship more.

It’s been a steep learning curve and I’m doing my best to keep up with all of the scholars of Indian history and culture I’ve been meeting with. I do a lot of smiling and nodding and sipping coffee while trying to rapidly scrawl down every scrap of information they give me. Although it makes for some exhausting conversations, it is also thrilling to be surrounded by people who share this interest and I feel supremely lucky for that.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

An Evening in Mysore

I am currently sitting in the Natarajans’ living room while Savitri talks on the phone to her daughter in the U.S. and Mr. Natarajan is resting. We just regained power after an inexplicable 12-hour power outage and Savitri and I are going to take advantage of the opportunity to do make some dosas. It’s Saturday evening here and I arrived in Mysore from Bangalore on Thursday afternoon. The last few days have been spent wandering around town, taking in the colorful sarees and ubiquitous cows on the road, meeting with people about my research and basking in the warm hospitality of the Natarajan family.

I have been thrown into my project due to an encounter with several people at the Center for Indian Languages Institute which is based in Mysore. The center is devoted to preserving the variety of Indian languages across regions and advocates for an education system that teaches children in their mother tongues. I spent hours there yesterday meeting with Professors, searching for things in their library and reading. As luck would have it, they have the entire collection of a magazine called “Names” which is actually an American academic journal. It contains articles called “Margarete and Sulamith under the Swastika: Girls’ Names in Nazi Germany” and “Si Mohammed!: Names as Address Forms in Moroccan Arabic”. In other words, articles that are proving to be perfect for a lot of my research in many different places. I’m finding it very ironic that I’d have to travel to Mysore, India to find such a perfect American journal.

A sign at the institute.

Besides that discovery, I also learned that in Mysore there is a “Society for Place and Personal Names” and actually quite a large number of scholars studying this topic. Over the next few days I am being shuttled around in an auto rickshaw to meet with a wide variety of people who have connections there. It is such a different way of doing work than I experienced in Indonesia and it feels a little strange to be transitioning into a much more formal academic mode. I have already been to the homes of three different Professors who are studying place names in the Karnataka region.

A Mysore street with an auto rickshaw.

Another Mysore street.

Mysore is also proving to be the perfect first India experience. It is a sleepy town, by Indian standards, and it feels much more manageable than I anticipated. There are parks and green spaces and lakes on the university campus. It is the second largest city in the southern state of Karnataka and is famous for its palace. Mysore was an area that was ruled by a King and was never fully colonized by the British. It is also famous for the upcoming Dasara festival which begins in a few days. I timed my visit perfectly (or terribly, if I had wanted to avoid large crowds and other tourists).

Map above is courtesy of Wikipedia. The area in red is the state of Karnataka.

A visit to the sweet shop

With power outages comes internet outages, so I’m playing a bit of catch up. I’ll write more soon with some of the naming information I’ve gathered as well as more about my impressions of India thus far. After nearly two months on my own in Indonesia, I feel entirely grateful to be living with a family, especially one as generous as the Natarajans, who have been doing everything from helping me find people all over India to stay with, to accompanying me on interviews, to packing me crackers and a water bottle if I’m going out for a few hours. My days begin with steaming early morning coffee and are filled with living room conversations, desperate attempts to keep up with the heavily-accented and brilliant onomastic scholars I meet, visits to FabIndia (a store that fills me with the same jaw-dropping wonder that a visit to Anthropologie does), and incredible vegetarian meals that end with rice and yogurt curds. I am realizing that my goal of studying Indian names is a somewhat impossible task to accomplish due to the size of this country and the many different demographics, languages and people within it, but Mysore feels like the perfect place to at least begin to try.

In my room in the Natarajan's apartment (excuse my just-showered-wet dog-esque appearance). The shawl was a gift from Wayan's family on my last day in Bali and has proved to be very useful here because it can act as a dupatta, which most women wear here, and can also cover up my hair when necessary.

The shrine at the Natarajan home (they are Hindus and followers of Shaivism). Every morning Savitri makes a different design with rice powder on the stone.