Of Maharaja Macs and Poets


October 7, 2012 by Louis Ritzinger

I finally had my first Chicken Maharaja Mac yesterday.

The verdict: it needs more sauce.  I find this to be particularly strange because, say what you will about Indian food, bland it is not.  I also have to ask myself how India has figured out that serving Egg McMuffins (or its rough equivalent) all day is a pretty good idea, while in the States if I’m there 9.5 seconds after 10 am I’m out of luck?  Man we have it tough back home.

The semester at the American Institute is definitely moving along.  While I still have a very long way to go to be where I want to be in terms of my Urdu language skills, I look back on where I was when I first arrived (essentially entirely unable to construct anything beyond the most basic sentences) and the progress I’ve made after only a little over a month is very encouraging – when I can allow myself that sort of perspective, that is.

The work can be exhausting, however, and I’m very grateful for the next few shortened weeks.  Last week we were given Tuesday off in recognition of Gandhi’s birthday (a national holiday here known as Gandhi Jayanti) and this week, as we are the American Institute, we have been granted Columbus Day off as well.  There is certainly something a little bit strange about celebrating Columbus Day in India, although, when you think about, India does have a little something to celebrate on the occasion.  In hindsight, they really dodged a bullet on that one.

The next two weeks are shortened as well for our mid-semester break as well as for Eid al-Adha (lit: “Feast of Sacrifice”), better known in India as Bakr-Eid (lit: “Goat Feast”).  The holiday celebrates Abraham’s devotion to God, to the point of sacrificing his own son.  Today, the holiday is celebrated throughout the Muslim World with prayer, the sacrifice of an animal (a portion of which is usually given to the poor), and feasting.

A few potential trips are in the works over the next month. possible destinations: Agra (kind of have to do it), Delhi, and Varanasi.  A trip to Hyderabad over winter break is also in the pipeline.

Our class took another field trip on Friday – this one just down to the road to an Indian Urdu academy to introduce ourselves and to listen to some (read: a lot) of Urdu poetry.  Urdu, around these parts, is considered to be very much a literary language – the language of poetry (Shairi ki zabaan)- thanks to the works of poets and writers such as Muhammad Iqbal, Ghalib, Momin Khan Momin, Jigar Moradabadi, and countless others. Although Urdu’s use as a vernacular language in Lucknow is on the decline, its status as the preeminent South Asian poetic language remains, at least for now, unchallenged.

As we entered the compound the students, most of whom appeared to be around our age, strained to look through the windows.  Several teachers greeted as at the doorway, where a colorful “welcome” sign was hanging.  We walked into the classroom slowly, careful so as not to sweep aside the additional greetings that had been written for us in red, yellow, blue and green sand along the floor.  The classroom was dim and sparsely furnished, but warm, as dozens of smiling eyes followed each of us as we exchanged greetings with a student at the door, who carefully placed a Tilak on each of our foreheads.  We then sat down at the front of the classroom, facing the teachers and administrators of the Urdu Academy, as well as the head of the American Institute, and took turns introducing ourselves in Urdu to the students with varying degrees of clumsiness.  Cameras clicked as we stood behind the podium, upon which hung a string of vibrant-hued plastic flowers.  It was hard not to be self-conscious, in spite of the the abundantly clear good intentions.

“Hello! My name is Louis.  I am from Washington, DC.  I’ve been studying Urdu for 5 months.  I’m very happy to have been… er… I mean to have be… I mean to be here.”

We then listened to each of the students recite poetry – some well-known, some they had written.  One thing I’ve noticed here is that during public gatherings – be they movies, speeches, lectures, etc. – it does not appear to be unusual, nor particularly rude, for the audience to engage with, or sometimes simply talk over the speaker.  This can sometimes be a little bit obnoxious to someone not used to it, as when several men at the movie theater decided to answer their phones repeatedly during the film, yelling to talk over the sound system.

“WHAT!?! No! No its no big deal!! I can talk!”

But the way in which the audience participated in this poetry reading was, I found, much more conducive to the concentrated doses of emotion contained within each line – spoken or sung.

“Bahut KHub! Bahut Achaa!” students shouted out when the mood struck them.  “Wonderful!” It was engaging, exciting, moving, even just plain funny at times.  Despite the fact that I often had only the slightest idea of what the poet was really saying, I found it difficult not to laugh, applaud, or cheer with the others.

When our 2 1/2 hours were up we headed back to the institute – but not before all of the students begged their teachers to read just a few more poems.

As we left, I couldn’t help thinking that English teachers struggling to get students engaged in poetry might do well to learn some Urdu.


One thought on “Of Maharaja Macs and Poets

  1. Max says:

    I too was disappointed with my maharaja mac. I would recommend the tandoori chicken pizza at pizza hut though (might as well make the most of your break from not eating meat!)

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