Many years ago, after seeing Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, I became enamored with Montauk, the most eastern tip of Long Island. There is something that I find magical about geographic capes or peninsulas – these very remote ends of land that jut out into the ocean. Montauk seemed to me like a distant utopia — a place to which people made pilgrimages, the end of the earth. A few years later, I finally made the trip out to see the first sunrise of the new year. It was everything I imagined — the ocean sprawls out in every direction, and the light is almost blinding as it reflects off the waves at sunrise. I can’t even describe what I felt, other than I could actually feel my heart in my body. Still today, when I think of heaven, I imagine Montauk.

Of course it followed that, already being so far south in India, I felt compelled to visit Kanyakumari, the southernmost tip of India, and the convergence of the Bay of Bengal, the Arabian Sea, and the Indian Ocean, the three bodies of water that surround the Indian subcontinent.

the green keralan countryside

Even getting to Kanyakumari is beautiful. It’s a nine-hour train ride from Kochi, the capital of Kerala, through the greenest part of India I’ve seen yet – dense Keralan foliage clears away to beautiful green rice paddies. Nestled in the forests of palm trees are little houses and occasionally there is a water hole with steps on one side where people take their baths and wave as the train goes by. At one point I even caught a glimpse of an elephant bathing, happily pouring water over its head with its trunk. When you get close to Kanyakumari, the most strangely beautiful mountains appear. They are otherworldly in their awkward jaggedness, and at dusk they were covered by a thin purple haze.

the mountains at Kanyakumari

We arose at 5AM to see the sunrise. ‘We’ was Robin, Aditya, John and me, all fellow fulbrighters based in cities throughout India, working on a diverse array of projects: Robin lives in Pune, studying the development of women’s rugby in India, Aditya lives in Bombay, where he is translating ancient sanskrit mathematical treatises, and John is in Jamkhed, a small town in Maharashtra, working with the local population to implement rural health initiatives. Though our areas of expertise are extremely varied, we all share a sense of curiosity and a healthy penchant for adventure.

John, me, Robin and Aditya at the point for sunrise

Hundreds of people made their way through the large temple at the edge of the city and out to the point in the dark. They gathered either on the shore or on many of the huge rocks a little ways out in the water. Unlike Montauk, the lookout point was buzzing with life — street vendors weaving in and out of the throngs of people, selling chai and strings of white flowers that women tie into their hair. Children climbed on the walls, and people gently nudged one another out of the way to get the best view of the sunrise over the three oceans.

The bustle didn’t make the view any less spectacular, though. As the sun rose, it came up directly behind the massive, solemn statue of the poet Thiruvalluvar, that stands on a large rock just off the shore (reminding me of an indian counterpart of the Statue of Liberty), so that at a certain point in its trajectory, the sun formed a halo around his head.

Kanyakumari is a quiet beach town – there is only really one main drag of shops, and even though there is a steady stream of tourists that come to Kanyakumari, and consequently a number of businesses that cater to them, the rest of the town seems much less affected by their presence than most other cities in India. We were all surprised how uninflated the prices were, and how little we had to bargain. A kilo of oranges was only seven rupees (it amounted to about 2 cents an orange). Our rickshaw ride from the train station to the hotel started at ten rupees, and to take us to five different hotels and wait while we scouted them out cost us a total of 30 rupees (60 cents). To get a sari blouse stitched the same day was 100 rupees (two dollars) – the same service by a tailor in Delhi would have cost me at least five to six times that much.

Needless to say, I couldn’t resist buying a few saris to add to my collection. My favorite was a Kerala sari — white with a gold border, worn specifically by the women from that region. Robin also bought a sari, and Aditya and John bought lungis which they learned to tie in the local way by the shopkeeper. (Both lungis and saris are essentially yards of plain fabric with no stitching, but lungis are worn by men around the waist, and saris are worn by women to cover the full body). Robin and I bought strings of fragrant white flowers to tie in our hair, in typical south indian fashion.

While Robin and John had to leave shortly after lunch, Aditya and I spent the rest of the afternoon walking around monuments and temples. It’s interesting that in all these years, I have somehow never been to darshan at a Hindu temple. Although I am not Hindu, I found it incredibly moving to go through these simple, graceful rituals with someone who understood and had practiced them growing up. A light touch to the floor and then to the forehead before stepping with the right foot through the door of the dimly-lit sanctuaries, bare feet on cold stone floors, all the men shirtless in reverence, many only wearing lungis, hands in namaste, inaudible prayers murmured through their palms, a spot of vermillion powder at the third eye, making clockwise circles around objects of worship. While I didn’t always understand the significance behind them, these communal gestures of reverence and devotion were beautiful to observe.

I had my own ritual to perform, too, though. Six years ago, when I first came to India, I promised myself that I would find a way back here through my music (the whole story is here). I bought a ring that has been around my left middle finger for these past six years, a constant reminder of that promise. Six years later, at the very tip of India, standing on the statue of Thiruvalluvar, I threw my ring into the convergence of the three oceans.

At the time I made the promise, I thought I’d perhaps write a piece of music and come back for a single performance of it in Bombay or Delhi, or perhaps I’d be able to meet and work with one Indian musician, maybe travel around the country for a few weeks. I couldn’t have known six years ago how absolutely amazing and varied this time in India would be, the vast array of experiences I would have, both musical and non-musical, and the wealth of incredible people I would meet. This year has changed me in the predictable ways, but has also found its way deep into the fabric of my being in ways I couldn’t have anticipated, and perhaps still don’t fully comprehend.

It’s interesting which experiences are emotionally charged for each of us. I’m sure that not many other people experience what I do in these places, or consider looking out over the ocean at the far corners of the earth as magical as I do — at both those moments in Montauk and Kanyakumari, and even in thinking about them in retrospect, I am filled with an energy so intense that sometimes my ears ring for seconds at a time. It is the rarest kind of inspiration for me: most of the time, I write music with a combination of intuition and careful regulation, keeping my emotions in check for the long haul of rendering a piece of music into being. But then there are times like these where the dials are turned all the way up past the safe levels, where the regular methods of expression fail, like an image that is so saturated and bleeding with color that it loses its practical function. My mind floods with sound, and it’s all I can do to keep it contained within myself.

It was with that overflowing energy that, after visiting Montauk the first time, I started writing a piece for two pianos. Though it has laid unfinished for years, the thoughts for the piece, the floods of sound and color came back intensely here, too, and have been rolling around in my mind ever since. The challenge isn’t in finding the method of expression, but in channeling such a massive wave of energy  and sound into a tangibly expressible medium. We’ll see if I can make it work this time around.

throwing my ring into the ocean

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on the train to Kanyakumari

If things have been a little quiet on the blog this month, it’s because I’ve only spent a few days at home. March has been a month of travel, and it’s been an absolute whirlwind.

I started the month at the Fulbright Conference in Cochin, Kerala from March 3-7, and then spent the 7-12 travelling around the south with three other fulbrighters, including a visit to the very bottom tip of India, Kanyakumari.

On the 15th, I took a trip with two of my roommates and some of their family in exactly the opposite direction – up to Assam to visit Kazi Ranga, a park which has the largest population of one-horned rhinos in the world (and many of which we saw from about 15 feet away, while riding on elephants), then to West Sikkim, in the Himalayas, where the 3rd tallest mountain in the world is visible, and then to Darjeeling where we visited tea plantations and sampled amazing tea straight from the source.

After a small flight fiasco resulting from Kingfisher Airlines’s slow but steady death, I’m writing this from a hotel in Bagdogra, where I’m spending a few days before flying to Jaipur to take a block printing class with my roommate Devin, whose work in India is in textiles, and finally return to Delhi at the end of the month.

At the end of April, I’m travelling again: a short trip to Amritsar to see the Golden Temple, followed by an epic four-day nonstop train journey on the Himsagar Express, which, up until late last year, was the longest train ride in India: 69 straight hours from Kanyakumari in the south to Jammu-Tawa in the far north.

This s the most travelling I’ve ever done in my life, and it’s been absolutely amazing. I’ve seen so much of India, I’ve had so many incredible experiences, some planned but most spontaneous, and I’ve been able to spend a lot of time with some really wonderful people. Travelling in India requires a high degree of patience and persistence, and though there have certainly been challenges of all varieties, I’ve found the process of handling them to be a uniting force. Everyone has a very different skill set, and it’s amazing what can be accomplished when everyone contributes their strengths. I know how rare this is – there were so many ways things could have gone wrong and stayed wrong, and the fact that I was able to constantly laugh with my fellow travelers in the most absurd of circumstances says a lot about the kind of people they are.

Needless to say, there will be more posts to follow in the next few days. My internet has been spotty at best, so it will take me awhile to get anything with pictures up on the blog.

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Spring is springing in Delhi – the weather is getting warmer, people are outdoors without scarves and sweaters, and a few hungry mosquitoes are starting to make unwelcome cameo appearances in the evenings.

Aside from the obvious topic of love, there is nothing quite like the change of seasons to stir the hearts of musicians. For most of my life, my musical conception of spring was this:

Spring from Vivaldi’s celebrated work The Four Seasons is light and full of the sounds of new life — birds calling, flowers unfurling — a literal breath of fresh air after the long winter.

As spring comes to India, the appropriate raag, Basant (which literally means spring in Hindi) is chosen constantly for concerts given around this time. Listen for a moment to the sound world that Hindustani music attributes to spring:

This conception of spring picks up on very different elements than the ones we typically do in the west (though one could argue that perhaps Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring is closer to this sound world). At least to my western ears, the raag sounds darker, more sinuous and less peppy.

For the musicians reading this, I think Raag Basant is so subtle and nuanced that I wanted to write it out a little more plainly for you. Here is its aroh/avaroh (ascent/descent):

The way I’ve written it out, the white notes are a little longer and weighted more – it’s hard to notate this exactly, but this gives you a sense of the hierarchy of the notes.

My favorite part is the coda at the end of the descent, with the natural fourth. Those last two phrases are very soft and intimate, and feel almost like a beautiful whispered secret to me.

There is no doubt that various musical cultures have evolved to attribute certain sounds to certain events or feelings. As a western musician, I have constantly wondered whether there was something inherent in certain sounds that begged specific emotions, or whether the pairing of particular sounds with the same emotions over generations created a sort of Pavlovian effect on the culture of listeners. For instance, the first time someone heard the I-iii-I-iii chord progression, did tears well up in their eyes? Or was it the constant pairing of that with sorrowful parting scenes in movies that made an audience (largely unaware of the progression’s musical mechanics) respond predictably to it on a purely emotional level?

Brought into this context, I wonder if spring just brings up a different range of associations for Indians than it does for westerners, whether the same associations are expressed differently in music, or some combination of both.

In any case, as the birds create a racket on my air conditioner and my scraggly bamboo plant is visibly encouraged by the extra hours of light, I will be thinking of both Vivaldi and Raag Basant this year.

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studies in perfection.

When I was 24 years old, I decided one day that I would either be perfect at everything I did or die trying.

And then I hit rock bottom and realized I was looking for all the wrong things, and did some soul searching and realized that to err is human etc. etc.

I totally didn’t.

I just became perfect at everything.

Obviously, I didn’t do that either.

My relationship with perfection has been a long and complex one. Up until that point when I was 24, I was fascinated mostly with the seeds of creation. I had lists of pieces that I was going to compose, all with the first few ideas sketched out, and written ideas about the general way things would unfold. But once I got the gist of things down on paper, once the process of rendering began, I saw how far my ability to execute my creation lagged behind my ability to conceive of it (which I now know to be a common problem among creative types at that age and point of development, (Ira Glass phrases it beautifully here) but which, at that point, I felt was primarily a personal failing). My desire for perfection, which was more easily achieved at school and other areas of my life where the parameters were clearly defined, hindered me from continuing to shepherd my creative thoughts through that process of realization.

It took many years before I began to see the quest for perfection as a long and arduous process that was the end goal of a certain critical amount of practice. And once I saw it as such, perfection suddenly felt attainable. In the same, almost coldly mathematical way that Malcolm Gladwell purported it took 10,000 hours of practice to master an art or sport, I felt that just by putting in the hours of concerted effort, I could achieve similarly great results at anything I wanted to learn.

And, to a certain degree, Gladwell was absolutely right. I spent from age 24 to 28 methodically working towards whatever goal I chose, one hour at a time. There was no bar too high, no subject too far-fetched, or nothing which I felt was beyond my capacity — it was only a matter of hours spent, and level of focus at each step that dictated how fluent I would become.

During that time:

  • I learned to play the violin, starting from barely being able to hold the bow correctly to giving a 45-minute recital program, including a movement of a Mozart concerto two years later.
  • I learned how to trade forex (foreign exchange), checking the indexes and the news every morning, following my chosen currency pairs, reading books and learning various trading strategies online, and watching the irrational curves intently as the financial crisis began to ravage the markets.
  • I studied pure logic, first by myself with books, then in an amazing class at Yale. I also got caught up in studying for the LSAT for awhile, because of it’s particularly interesting logic section.
  • I became a dedicated student of yoga, first with DVDs at home, then going to class in New York, sometimes as often as twice a day when I had time. I found a wonderful teacher who taught me privately one summer, showing me how to align my poses and deepen my practice, and spent a week a few years ago in Guatemala in 2009 on a yoga retreat. I had intended to do a month-long 200-hour teacher training in Rishikesh this summer (though, in the end, it will have to be postponed to a later date).
  • My job at Manhattan School of Music allowed me to develop my dexterity in both theory and aural skills. I conquered my fear of incompetence with counterpoint, and even wrote a book for my students to help make the ancient subject called “species counterpoint” accessible and fun for them. Through hours of practice, both alone and with my students, my ear learned to hear things that had eluded me for most of my undergraduate degree, and then to hear beyond those things into still more abstract and distant constructs.

Of course, I wasn’t perfect at any of these things (I was and still am quite far from being perfect at them), but the very notion that perfection existed and was logically achievable propelled me forward to make the great strides I made during that time. It wasn’t just about the hours I sunk into each endeavor — it was about being ruthlessly critical all the time, about finding the mistakes and fixing them as quickly as possible.

It may sound like drudgery, but those were some of the most revealing and fruitful years of my life up until that point. I grew and learned constantly, and was inspired by each little breakthrough. I pursued perfection doggedly, and that single-minded search fulfilled me beyond measure.

Being in India has forced me to relax my hold on perfection in ways I hadn’t anticipated. The Fulbright orientations had duly warned me of the challenges of daily life here, where “five minutes” could be hours, and  “the next shop over” could mean anything from nextdoor to nonexistent. I actually enjoy this kind of vagueness more than I thought I would, though. Aside from the fact that it usually spurs some sort of adventure, or amounts to a fun anecdote in retrospect, it is an interesting insight into certain aspects of Indian culture that are best understood through example.

But there is another kind of perfection I’ve had to release my death grip on — and this one completely blindsided me.

One morning last November, I was asked to give a radio interview for the upcoming INK Conference on Radio One 94.3. Usually when I talk about my music, it is for a specific target audience (western classical musicians, if not other composers), and my approach is pretty standard in that context. But this interview was for a morning talk radio show that would be broadcast in six major cities around India, to spread the word to a diverse audience about an upcoming conference of innovative ideas.

The interview started out with the regular questions. What was the nature of my work in India? What kind of music did I write? Which musicians inspired me? I rattled off the answers confidently.

But then the RJ asked, “So, you’re a musician — can you sing something for our listeners? Maybe your favorite Bollywood song?”

Immediately my hair stood on end, and I started trying to think of a way to weasel out of the situation. I didn’t know Hindi well enough to sing a Bollywood song. What if I missed words? What if I mispronounced words? Every single person listening would know. Did I even know a Bollywood song well enough to sing it? What if I was off key? I’m not even a singer. And I was definitely not trained extensively in any Indian medium. What if this undermined people’s opinion of my merit as a musician?

In the west, I’m trained to put out work only when it is perfect, or as close as possible to perfection. On closer examination, though, I realized that my definition of perfection amounted to ‘accuracy’. It’s true that there is hardly a note or rhythm out of place on any recording of my music that is available to the public. But as I spend more time studying Indian music, where the idea of accuracy is much more broad and varied than in western music, I see that a number of these recordings, sometimes slapped together as a demo for a competition or thrown onto a concert at the last minute, lack something that is very important in Indian music: the ability to communicate.

I think there is a simple reason for this difference in values. To achieve accuracy singing an average Hindustani bandish is much less difficult than to achieve accuracy while playing, say, a Beethoven Piano Sonata. Accuracy in the bandish comes very early in the process (perhaps in an hour or so), as the plain, unadorned bandish is about four lines of unaccompanied melody — so there is no prestige in accuracy alone. But with the Beethoven Sonata, simply executing what is written in the score is often so taxing that most performances are content to make accuracy their end goal. And consequently, the difficulty associated with achieving that accuracy creates a strange fascination among students of western classical music with playing pieces that are increasingly technically difficult, instead of pieces that are musically fascinating, or heartbreakingly beautiful.

Indian classical music is also incredibly difficult, to be sure. But accuracy is only the very beginning of mastery. True mastery is not about following instructions as much as finding the most innovative ways to push right up against the boundaries of the form through improvisation. And that very impetus to be innovative comes from the desire to communicate with and please your audience. As beautifully rendered as your phrases may be, they are only complete with the approval and enjoyment of those who listen – a feature that is given much less weight in western music.

In Indian music, a whole different kind of perfection is present – the perfection of communication. The most concentrated example of this trait I can think of in the west is in standup comedy. There is a live exchange between the comedian and the audience, and a good comedian knows how to work with this relationship in a way that feels very natural, that never drops a beat, and that delivers a perfectly manicured performance drawing out genuine laughter from end to end. And so it is in Indian music – at the best concerts, the energy of communication is always palpable, and perfection is achieved when the artist uses their vast knowledge and expertise to anticipate the desires of their audience, and fulfill those desires as elegantly as possible.

In the seconds after the RJ asked me to sing, I realized I didn’t have a way out – it was a simple request that would have been impossible to refuse. So I tried to push the thoughts of imperfection out of my head. Whatever came out of my mouth would not be fully accurate – that was certain. But I firmly forced new thoughts into my mind: Reena, they just want you to have fun, and sing a song that people will relate to. That’s the whole point. Just show the listeners how much you enjoy the music that they love. That’s all.

I began to sing the melody of the classic old film song Kabhi Kabhi, apprehensively, note by note, doing my best, and trying not to judge what might have been a little out of tune or with the wrong gamaks (ornaments). And as the RJs looked on, smiling as they watched an Indian girl with an American accent trying earnestly to sing a bollywood song, I actually started to see what they saw, and enjoy myself a little, too.

I began to realize that the picture they wanted to paint of me was perhaps more true than the picture I wanted to paint of myself. Yes, I am a musician that holds myself to exacting standards. But that is hardly my defining feature. I’m also a person who might be fun to talk to at a conference, who is really excited about the work I do, and eager to share it with those around me. And in the larger scheme of things, that is really what I want to project to the people I meet.

One of the great lessons I’ve learned from yoga is the need for balance between elements. In yoga, one of the most basic balances exists between strength and flexibility. This far my pursuit of perfection had been heavily weighted on the strength side. Perfection is sometimes about dogged pursuit of knowledge, but other times about learning to be agile and adaptable with that knowledge. I see the former as my continuing obligation to better myself, and the latter as my way to use what I’ve learned to relate to others.

I may not be a perfect violinist, but it still felt magical to render the violin obbligato on Strauss’s Morgen for an audience of people I had never met the German Embassy last fall. I may not be a perfect accompanist, but it was great fun to coach singers for the Mozart production in Delhi last January. I may not be a perfect speaker of Hindi, but it’s pretty exhilarating to bargain hundreds of rupees off clothes in the market.

It’s amazing how much can be achieved through the context of interaction. That base ability gives you the opportunity to interact, and that interaction then augments your ability. From rigid perfection comes fluid adaptability, comfort in spontaneity, eager anticipation of the unknown. And from that eager anticipation forms a desire to meet new people and exchange ideas with them. And so the marvelous cycle continues.

I still love that single-minded pursuit of perfection, but I am finding a new perfection in equilibrium.

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indian rate.

the Taj Mahal (all photos by by Cecilia Gil Tienda)

The city of Agra, aside from being the home of the fabled Taj Mahal, is also the home to many other beautiful monuments – The Agra Fort, Akbar’s Tomb (in Sikandra), the mini-Taj Mahal, and Fatehpur Sikri, among dozens of other smaller monuments.

Each monument has two entrance prices: the foreigner rate, and the Indian rate.

At first it seems surprising: the foreign rate is anywhere from 10 to 20 times more than the indian rate, and the difference between the rates increases exponentially with the popularity of the monuments. The peak is at the Taj Mahal, where the foreign rate is 750 rupees while the Indian rate is only 20 rupees.

The Indians argue that 750 rupees is only $15, which is a reasonable price of admission to a western monument comparable to the Taj Mahal. It allows the Indians to see their own country at a price that is affordable for them, while the extra money from the westerners will allow the monument to be kept up to a high standard. There is obviously a whole ethical dilemma involved in this which I won’t enter at the moment — suffice it to say, for the moment, you simply pay less if you’re Indian.

The fact is, all of us who are here on Fulbright grants, regardless of what we look like, are residents of India for the year. We get paid an Indian salary, we are registered with the FRRO in our cities, we have leases and pay rent on apartments in India, and we support the local economy in many ways. If we were really just tourists coming through for a few weeks, it would be one thing. But as far as I’m concerned, we’re locals.

Obviously, many of my non-Indian-looking colleagues have almost no luck persuading ticket officers and guards of this opinion, but for me, walking this funny middle ground of an NRI (non-resident Indian) allows me the advantage of ambiguity.

As I’ve gone about my life in these last months, I feel like I’m part of this constant game to discern what traits mark me either as a westerner or as an Indian. Is it my clothes? The way I hold myself? The way I interact with people? Is it the quality or accent of my spoken Hindi? As long as I’m alone, wearing Indian clothes and speaking Hindi, local rickshaw drivers and shopkeepers no longer suspect me of being a westerner. But at one of the biggest tourist attractions in the world, with each foreigner paying the price of about 38 Indians, surely I would have to bring my A-game.

I did.

The first monument I visited was Akbar’s Tomb. I simply said, “Ek tikkit” and pushed the correct amount for the Indian rate through the slot in the ticket window. The problem was when I reached security. I proudly looked the guard in the eye when I gave him my ticket, and I think my western forwardness tipped him off.

chatting with the guard.

Immediately, he began questioning me to figure out exactly how Indian I really was. I had come prepared: I pulled out the seven page lease to my apartment in Delhi, and police verification document with my passport-sized picture plastered all over it. He was visibly taken aback (I don’t know how many people bring their leases to Sikandra), and examined it carefully. But by then, he knew I didn’t have a characteristic Indian demeanor, so he still persisted.

We engaged in a pretty lively exchange, which put my Hindi to the test. He asked me who various government officials of India were. I told him I was a musician, and didn’t know much about politics (to be fair, that’s pretty much the sad truth in the US, too. I would be great on a political JayWalking segment on Leno.) He asked me what my employment was, and I said I was a student at Delhi University. Which is also true: I’m affiliated there, and I have the papers to prove it. He asked if he could search my bag (a common tactic, clearly in search of a foreign passport, which I would have had with me if I was just touring around India) but found none.

Eventually, we were at a standstill: he asked me to go and get a foreign ticket, and I simply stood with my ticket held out in front of me saying, “This is my ticket,” in Hindi over and over again, refusing to let anyone else pass by me. He finally conceded, and let me pass.

super happy after the guard let me pass!

This is definitely the first time in my life I have made any sort of scene in a public place. In America, you couldn’t have paid me to create a scene at Disneyland or in line for the Empire State Building. But here, things are different. People push, and expect you to push back (both literally and figuratively). In fact, the whole time this guard was questioning me, there was another woman guard standing behind him, grinning and enjoying the show. The whole experience was kind of exhilarating.

But as you can imagine, it left me a little worried for the Taj Mahal. If Sikandra was so stringent, I couldn’t imagine what tactics they had to tease out potential foreigners at the Taj. To be sure, I took extra precautions. I wore one of my older, more threadbare kurtis, and a pair of fuzzy bedtime socks that I bought from our market that I see local indian women wearing all the time. I made sure not to look anyone directly in the eye and said very little.

holding up my indian admission ticket to the Taj!

Luckily, at the Taj, there were three lines: one for foreigners, one for indian men and one for indian ladies. Against the backdrop of other similar looking women, I didn’t raise any eyebrows, and I got my ticket with no problem.

There were also two or three other ticket/security checkpoints. As long as I said relatively little and kept my eyes down, I didn’t run into many problems. The one scary moment was when a woman checked my bag, and asked me if I had any food – I probably just said something like, “Umm..” and she looked surprised and said, “Oh, English?” and I quickly said, “Nope, no food!” in Hindi, grabbed my bag and made a dash.

It’s interesting, aside from the obvious benefit of lower prices, I actually feel a great deal of pride in being taken for an Indian from India. Especially in recent years, I’ve met so many Indian women that I look up to and admire, and I’m fascinated by their subtle beauty and grace — traits that I’ve felt lacking in myself, and that I haven’t ever understood how to cultivate in a western setting. It’s probably just a romantic notion on my part, but each time someone takes me for a local here, it makes me feel a little closer to being that person.

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The other night, my roommates and I stumbled upon a nightclub in the Greater Kailash N-Block Market, and decided to go in for a drink. It was actually quite nice — the atmosphere was great, the crowd was a mix of young well-to-do Indians and foreigners, and the music was a blend of Hindi and English songs.

About an hour in, it suddenly occurred to me that I knew many more of the Hindi songs than the English ones. It’s strange, right? I’ve grown up entirely in America. Up until a few years ago I knew zero Hindi songs and spoke zero words of Hindi. How is it possible that I couldn’t name more than three of the english songs that were playing, and yet I knew the words to many songs in a language I’m still learning to speak?

While this time in India has brought up the standard fare of Indian/American identity questioning, this is also the first time I have spent such an extended time living and interacting with Americans who are not also classical musicians. As I live here, and see how a parallel version of my life could have gone as a girl growing up in India, I have also been learning about what my life might have been like if I had attended a regular college and been surrounded by people with a variety of interests.

There is something uniting about pop culture that I somehow bypassed in my American life. Almost anyone within my age group will remember when a particular singer was popular, or when a particular song came out, even ten, fifteen years ago. I certainly remember my life musically, but it wasn’t something I shared with others: I lived in my own musical vacuum.

There were weeks when I listened only to Busoni’s Carmen Fantasy, or a single Naxos CD of Idil Biret playing Chopin, or Reiner’s recording of the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra, or a tape(!) of Radu Lupu’s recording of the first movement of the Moonlight Sonata, which is still the slowest and most beautiful one I’ve ever heard. I spent the summer of 2001 copying out the score to Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915, note for note, while listening to Dawn Upshaw’s brilliant recording. And then there was the summer of 2004, when I was fixated on the Italian pop singer Milva, to the point where I had her CD “I Grandi Successi” in a boombox in my hallway and would press play even before putting my bag down.

This time in my life is different, though. My ears are open to the everything around me. I remember a few months ago, when the Kolaveri Di craze swept through India – of course it was all over facebook and it had millions of hits on youtube. But I would also hear it in restaurants, in rickshaws, at parties, or even through my bedroom window in the afternoons, as people in the neighborhood blasted it from their balconies: Why this kolaveri, kolaveri, kolaveri di….. Musically, it’s a song like any other song, but it was also an experience I was sharing with everyone around me — my American roommates, my new Indian friends, people at parties that I had never met before and might never meet again. We all experienced Kolaveri Di together, and that made it magical for me in a very different way.

Maybe it’s just that I’m less of a purist than I used to be, or maybe my tastes have broadened. But I also think it’s something about Indian popular music itself.

Over the last few years, I’ve done multiple arrangements for Yale’s Hindi a cappella group Sur et Veritaal. One evening last summer, my assistant conductor, Shivani, and I spent no less than five hours trying to find an American pop song that I could mash up with the Bollywood classics Ghanana Ghanana and Chaiyya Chaiyya. Even if the tempos and keys were compatible, the moods were completely incongruous.

While Indian pop music is certainly dramatic and romantic, I find that it’s hardly ever angsty to the same degree as American pop music is. The emotions, just like the vowels in Hindi, are purer and more open. A love lost in Indian music is perhaps wistful or heart-wrenching. But in America, there is often also a tangled web of resentment, angst, and a desire for retribution on top of that initial feeling.

In the end, we went with Shakira’s ‘Hips Don’t Lie’, which is technically more Latin than standard pop. The feel was as close as we could get. (It seemed like a shot in the dark at the time, but I later realized how much Indians enjoy this song — the first week I was in Delhi, there was a televised Sing-Off in a big mall in Saket, and the chosen song was Hips Don’t Lie.)

In recent years, I’ve definitely heard my share of American popular music. I worked on an iPhone karaoke app for awhile, where my job was to create midi versions of popular melodies that could then be matched up with a tuning algorithm. I spent hours on youtube, watching and listening closely to the likes of Beyonce’s Halo, Kanye’s Stronger, and every major Lady Gaga hit. These are wonderful songs, and the production quality is incredible. In the Halo video, the visual elements of overexposure and backlighting are supported musically with these high-partial, slowly changing chord progressions that drown the experience in a sense of other-worldliness and suspension in time. But watching over and over it left me drained and a little depressed.

Perhaps it was just the nature of the work, but I think the music itself was also a large contributor — there is a layer of subtlety and covert implication in American pop culture – even in Lady Gaga, who most people would hardly describe as subtle (and whose music I quite enjoy) – that just doesn’t exist in its Indian counterpart.

I love the unabashed emotion in bollywood music: the dancing on top of moving trains, the running through fields of flowers with dupattas trailing in the wind, the gazing longingly across colorful expanses, the carefully choreographed dance numbers with hundreds of women wearing matching chanya cholis… to the american sensibility these things might seem almost garish at times, but to me, it feels exhilirating. I can watch these videos and listen to these songs again and again, and never tire of them. Even the most recent bollywood item songs, which are closer to American pop music in many ways, still have a great positive energy that I miss in the west.

There are definitely American pop songs that I love listening to over and over again, but I don’t know if I’ll ever feel as wild about a new American pop song as I still feel about this one:

I can’t explain it — it’s not the exploding fireballs on the downbeats, it’s not the stunning beauty of Katrina Kaif, it’s not the combination of Hindi and English lyrics that leave awkward phrases like, “I’m too sexy for you” and “Silly, silly, silly, silly boys” uncomfortably exposed in the texture… I don’t know. I just love it.

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apne peir.

Our new roommate, Jess, is starting an internship today at an organization called Apne Aap, which works with women who have been victims of human trafficking. This morning, as she was leaving the house, our maid Anita asked where she was going (since she doesn’t speak Hindi yet, the conversation was mostly between Anita and me).

Me: Jess is going to work.
Anita: Where does she work?
Me: At… a women’s organization.
Anita: Where?
Me: (frantically searching for words to describe child labor, human trafficking, exploitation etc and coming up completely empty.)
Anita: I don’t understand.
Me: The place she works improves the situation of women. It makes their lives better.
Anita: Oh! That’s great! Tell her my leg is hurting!

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