Monday, January 31, 2011

About "Servants"

Let me start by saying that I hate the term "servants". However, it is used so commonly in India and by Indian people all over the world, that with time I also started using it. In the end it is shorter to say "servants" than "the people who work for the X family". Still, whenever I use this word I put the quotation marks around it and I would like you to read it with them and understand what I mean.

On the flight to India I read an excellent novel by Aravind Adiga called "The White Tiger". This book, together with the stories that I heard from Anil, helped me to better understand modern life in India, and especially the relationship between a "servant" and their employer. Interestingly, since the book is written from the perspective of a "servant", even Anil found it eye-opening.

From Anil I knew that it is not uncommon for the employers to mistreat their "servants", and that "servants" will also do anything possible to take advantage of their employers (though, obviously, they have much less possibilities of doing so than their employers...)

The novel made us realize that there is also a lot of competition and backstabbing between the servants, which I found really sad. It's truly a pity that they do not realize that they would be able to achieve more if they were cooperating with each other. I fear that if Indian "servants" will not unite soon, their situation will never improve.

Luckily, Anil's parents are kind unpretentious people who lived many years abroad, which makes them good employers. They hire several people to help them with the house, and from what I saw, they treat all of them with a lot of respect. They also make sure that the children of their employees go to school and that the women are well-treated by their husbands.

Shockingly, that's not the case in most Indian households. Even in their upscale neighborhood it is apparently common for other employers to beat their "servants"!

Even though Anil's parents are good employers, occasionally their workers try to take advantage of them. As also "The White Tiger" explains, if you show too much kindness and understanding towards your "servants", from their point of view you are "stupid and naive" and deserve to be taken advantage of... They think that you have so much more money than they have that taking some more from you is not a theft, it is simply the right thing to do.

That means that you need to be pretty strict with your employees and establish a well-defined set of rules for them. (Of course there is absolutely no guarantee that they will follow them, and at the end of the day it is only a matter of luck if you find good workers or not.) I guess this is also the reason why Anil's mother did not want to give them the chocolates I brought. And I fear that if it would so happen that Anil and I move to India and hire some people to help us with cleaning the house, cooking and/or as drivers, they will totally walk over our heads. But let's cross that bridge when (if) we get there.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Replica of Taj Mahal

We did not visit "real" Taj Mahal during the last visit to India, but instead we went to see its replica called Bibi Ka Maqbara (or Poor Man's Taj), located in the city of Aurangabad in the state of Maharashtra.

The building is definitely beautiful and worth seeing, if it happens to be on your way. Now that I saw it, I wonder if it still makes sense for me to see the real Taj. Somehow the prospect of standing in a long line and paying lots of money does not sound too appealing to me (I'm strange, I know).

Bibi Ka Maqbara:

Bibi Ka Maqbara is not overly crowded and can be a nice spot to hang out, chat and relax:

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Sari Shopping

In Aurangabad I asked Anil to go sari shopping with me. I had no idea what to expect, or how to pick a sari, as I had never done that before. Moreover, I did not even have an idea how to wear a sari properly.

As you can see at the photo below, sari buying is a very unique experience. You get seated on the floor, and you get assigned a shopping assistant. His job is to find a sari you want, and your job is to describe as well as possible what you are looking for. Most of the saris are packed in the boxes, so you can not wander around by yourself and say which ones you like. Instead, you have to use words to describe the colors and the pattern you are looking for. But first, you have to define your target price range as saris can cost well over $1000.

I was hoping to find a brown party sari, but it seems that brown is not a popular color for saris. So in the end, I settled for a beautiful silk rosewood-colored sari with small silver flowers. I only bought it because I felt bad about "wasting" one hour of the shopping assistant's time. Especially that he was not the only person showing me saris, but there were also two other younger boys who were running around and bringing saris for me to pick from.

Also, to my great surprise, one of the two boys was asked to wrap a couple of saris around himself, so that I can see better their patterns. I felt a bit uneasy about it, and I thought that it might have been humiliating for a man to wear a sari. But I do not think he felt that way and likely it was a part of his job description.

I did not have a chance to wear my rosewood sari yet as I still need to get a matching blouse stitched for it. I am hoping to do that next time I am in India. So instead I am posting a photo of my wedding sari here, to give you an idea how sari looks (or rather how I look in sari). Anil says that I should be a sari model :) But he is my husband, so what else can he say? :)

Inside a sari shop:

My wedding sari - I figured out how to wrap it all by myself!:

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Can We Slow Down Aging?

For those of you living in the US, my lab will be featured in today's Nova Science Now episode "Can We Slow Down Aging?" on Channel 9 (KQED PBS TV) at 8 PM PST (repeated on Sunday Jan 30 at 7 PM).

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Daulatabad Fort

Daulatabad is a fort city located in Maharashtra, about 13 kilometers northwest of Aurangabad. We visited it on the way to Ellora Caves.

Daulatabad is known for its majestic fortress, which was build in the 12th century on top of a 600 ft (200 m) high hill. It is one of the world's best preserved forts of medieval times and also one of the few impregnable forts in Maharashtra with excellent architecture. For a few years during the early 14th century it was even the capital of India (during the reign of Tughlaq dynasty), but it got abandoned quickly due to lack of water.

Daulatabad Fort is built on an isolated pyramid-shaped natural mountain peak. The fort area is surrounded by three concentric walls (fortifications) known as kots. The outer one covers the Daulatabad old town, the middle one is currently the boundary of the fort for all practical purposes and the third one directly surrounds the main fortress.

Imagine that you are an invader and you somehow managed to cross the three kots. Now what you need to do is to find a way of crossing a 40 ft deep trench with mechanical drawbridges and crocodiles. If you manage that, then you still need to navigate through a pitch-dark maze, followed by a flight of 400 odd steps leading up to the main fortress...

No invader ever managed to do that as the defense system of the fort was absolutely full proof. However, the fort did get conquered once by treachery.

The second row of fortifications of Daulatabad Fort:

One of many gates inside the fort:

Hindu Temple and the Chand Minar in the background:

Hindu Temple:

The crocodile-filled moat around the main fortress:

Views from the top:

Anil and Majid (our driver) in front of the Chand Minar:

The fort was very well-maintained. But I was shocked to find out that it was all a result of manual labor...:

Sunday, January 23, 2011


After long and hard negotiations, Anil managed to convince his mother to allow us to travel together to the Ajanta and Ellora Caves. She only agreed to that under a condition that their family driver, Majid, would accompany us during the trip. In India it is extremely uncommon for unmarried man and woman to travel together (or even to go out for a date without a third party present). Majid's role was to make sure that we behave decently and also to be "the third party" for us, so that our reputation does not get ruined.

Long-distance driving does not make too much sense in India. It is slow, stressful and dangerous. Therefore, we decided to take an overnight train to Aurangabad (in the state of Maharashtra) and only there rent a car with a driver. (The train trip deserves a separate post, so I am not going to describe it here.)

The Ellora Caves are located around 30 km, and the Ajanta Caves around 100 km from Aurangabad, so they can be easily seen during the same trip (though I do not think it is possible to see both of them in one day).

We first went to Ajanta. It took us only around 2h by car to get there even though the road was narrow, heavily used by cows, motorcyclists and pedestrians, and had a significant number of holes. All that was not enough to discourage the driver we hired from driving between 90 to 110 km/h...

On the way to Ajanta I was worried that we are going to kill somebody, whereas on the way back I was worries that also we are not going to survive this trip... Anil and I were sitting in the back of the car, where there were no seat belts. In my imagination I could see us flying out of the car through the front window as soon as we hit something/somebody, or even just when the car breaks suddenly. I shared my concerns with Anil and asked him to ask the driver to slow down, but, stoically, he replied: "At least we are going to die together. Wouldn't that be a good solution to our problems?" (Our problems = problems that his mother was causing us at that moment in time.) But all's well that ends well :) We survived the trip and we lived to tell how spectacular and fascinating the caves in Ajanta are.

The Ajanta Caves are a series of 29 Buddhist cave temples, carved out of a horseshoe-shaped cliff along the Waghora River. Some of them were built in the 2nd century BC, rest likely around 500 AD.

Five of the caves were used by Buddhist monks as prayer halls (chaitya grihas) and 24 were monasteries (viharas). They are thought to have been occupied by some 200 monks and artisans for about nine centuries, and then got abruptly abandoned, likely in favor of Ellora. Since then the temples have been abandoned and forgotten, and gradually reclaimed back by the jungle. They got rediscovered in April 1819 when a British officer, John Smith, accidentally discovered the entrance to one of the cave temples while hunting a tiger.

The caves are numbered from east to west, 1 through 29. Today, they are connected by a terraced path, but in ancient times each was independently accessed from the riverfront.

Inside the caves are many masterpieces of Buddhist art. Older caves follow the Theravada tradition of depicting the Buddha only in symbolic form such as a throne or footprints. The newer ones (the Mahayana caves) also feature colorful murals and statues depicting the lives of the Buddha and Bodhisattvas. In some caves there are also depicted scenes from everyday life of the monks.

First views of Ajanta Caves:

Ajanta Caves are located in a horse-shoe shaped valley:

Caves to the left, caves to the right, Monika in the center:

Beautiful fresco in the Cave No 1:

The central statue in the Cave No 1:

The central statue in the Cave No 2 (Mahayana Temple):

Cave No 4:

The central statue in the Cave No 4:

Side statues in the Cave No 4:

Views from the Cave No 6:

The central statue in the Cave No 6:

Side statues in the Cave No 6:

Cave No 10:

Anil and elephants:

The central statue in the Cave No 17:

Colorful frescoes in the Cave No 17:

Cave No 19:

The central statue in the Cave No 20:

Close up of the central statue in the Cave No 20:

Inside the Cave No 21:

Beautiful carved column in the Cave No 21:

Ceiling fresco in the Cave 21:

Cave No 26:

Inside the Cave No 26:

Reclining Buddha in the Cave No 26:

Other statues in the Cave No 26:

A view to the Ajanta Caves from the viewpoint:

Waterfall near the Ajanta Caves: