Jul 29, 2011

Museums that feel like fun parks

I have often visited the various museums of Nepal. Me, my sister, and cousins have enjoyed going to the Chhauni museum and its several wings, Basantapur museum, and other museums. We enjoyed looking at the artifacts, discussing them, and having picnics on the premises. But more often than not, the”fun” part of going to museums came from us, and not from the museums, because the museums represented themselves as scholarly, remote, and somewhat untouchable. In America, I saw a vast difference in the way museums represented themselves (of course it’s the museum personnel who are responsible for this representation, but for a while let us pretend that museums have a personality too.) Their stance was more fun and approachable. I could see that visitors, especially children, were impressed but not overly awed by the museums. I was wondering if these approaches could be tried in the museums of Nepal to attract more visitors.

First of all, many museums allowed visitors to touch selected exhibits. At the Lincoln Memorial museum in Springfield, a stone statue of the face of Lincoln was displayed with the notice “please touch”. At the Chicago Art Institute is an exhibit called “water”, which is basically a curtain made of many different glass beads. You have to walk through this curtain to get to the other room. According to the artist, the purpose of this exhibit is to show that art should be embraced. At the Field museum in Chicago, replicas of dinosaur teeth were available for touching. Also at the Field museum, two inch samples of several kinds of fur were available for touching. I now know the difference between the textures of mink and angora coats. In real life I could never afford either of these furs and will probably not come across them in my life. The most fun “touchable” exhibit was also at the Field museum, where there was a replica of dinosaur’s footprints. The footprint was probably made of some sort of hard clay or mold, and it was so big that me and my friend were able to fit both our feet in it comfortably, and there was still space for at least three more pairs. I bet children had a lot of fun trying to measure up to the dinosaur feet.

The next step to touching objects was giving visitors custom made photo opportunities. Field museum had many such spots, we could actually climb on old models of cycles or fake horses and take pictures. Lincoln Memorial museum has statues of Abraham Lincoln’s family grouped together, where you could sling an arm into Lincoln’s elbow for a picture.

Sometimes, we actually got to play with the exhibits. Chicago Art Institute had an exhibit of post modern furniture, where people could actually sit and rest on the innovatively designed new age sofas and chairs and some unnamed pieces. At a special exhibit for whales, the Field museum had a huge model of whale heart complete with valves. Children could actually enter the whale heart through these valves and play inside. At the dinosaur section, we could press a lever which emitted a deep sound -supposedly imitating a dinosaur's voice. Nearby was a model Native American house complete with kitchen utensils, and even real looking food in the utensils. Of course the food was all artificial and the utensils were stuck to the kitchen floor, but still we could pretend as if we were cooking for a while. The Lincoln memorial museums had an even better idea: there were costumes from Lincoln’s era that children could actually wear and play in for a while.

These fun activities also catered to the nerdy visitors. Field museum had games and puzzles for children (and inquisitive adults) at regular intervals of few meters. Some of them were played on touch screens, but others were played on plain wooden panels. Usually a question is asked and the answer is covered, and we can move a simple piece of wood to discover the answer. From these types of panels I discovered that many food items that we take for granted today, like Chilli, Cocoa, Maize, Potato, and Tomato all originated in the two American continents. Would never have known that if I wasn’t having fun with the panels! There were also more elaborate games like puzzles or jigsaws.

Museums also have special exhibits to attract visitors from time to time. The Art Institute of Chicago holds exhibitions of specific historical times, or specific artists. The Field museum at Chicago goes one step further and holds special exhibits of “cool” subjects like Pirates and Dinosaurs. Children may not be attracted to regular subjects like history of Native Americans, but they would certainly like to see pirates!
Field museum building during Pirates Special exhibition. Note how the entire building is converted into a promotional advertisement

I was wondering, why couldn’t we apply some of these ideas and make our own museums more fun! Many museums earn a lot just by selling t shirts with the museum’s name or artifacts printed on it, Nepali museums could do that by selling t shirts, replicas of artifacts, or local crafts. We have such a vast collection of interesting information in our museums; they just need a more approachable front. Maybe visitors could be allowed to touch some exhibits, or replicas of exhibits (usually the touchable exhibits that I mentioned were replicas of real artifacts and not the originals). Or they could be allowed to pose with some ancient swords or cannonballs, they could be allowed to pose near statues, or they could be allowed to wear replicas of ancient costumes for a fee. Special festivals could be organized according to themes! That way, museums can attract not just hard core nerds, but also children and people who just want to have fun! Once someone ends up at a museum, they are bound to learn something! The schemes listed above are not expensive, though of course, many American museums employ expensive schemes involving lots of extra hardware. However, creative presentation is worth much more than expensive hardware any day, and in Nepal, everyone is a creative genius!

Note: This article was published in Tourism Times Fortnightly

What is the most surprising revelation?

Thanks everyone for voting on my poll, most people, like me, seem to find Vishnu's lower status in the hierarchy of gods most interesting!

men are compared to bulls 0 (0%)
Draupadi wore a white sari for swayamvar 1 (20%)
Vishnu is called "Younger brother of Indra" 2 (40%)
Frog's eyes are praised 0 (0%)
Fish does not exist in Draupadi's swayamvar 1 (20%)
All of the above 2 (40%)

Jul 23, 2011

Outdated Mahabharata Fashions

The Mahabharata is a treasure trove of information regarding our ancient culture, and reading it recently, I found it full of customs that are outdated today. For example, physical strength was the most desirable possession for men in those days, and this strength was evaluated through comparisons with the natural world. Men were often given the title of “bull among men” or “tiger among men” to signify their strength. In fact, on their wedding day, the five Pandavas “entered the wedding hall like mighty bulls entering a cow-pen!” Bhim is said to be like a “sixty year old elephant in the rut that is demented with the juices in three parts of his body and runs wild in the jungle, crushing all trees around him”. Men’s thighs were as big as “trunks of Sala tree” and their voices were praised for being “deep and loud as kettle drums”. When Bhim killed Jarasandha, the sound of his wailing was so fierce that “several women delivered prematurely!”

Beautiful eyes of a bull

The comparison with bulls, elephants and other animals continues with females. Women were praised for having “eyes like bull’s”, quite different from the complement of Mriganayani that we are more used to today! I convinced myself that the eyes of bulls, like those of mriga (deer), were probably beautiful too, but there were a couple other complement that I just could not reconcile with! One woman was praised for having “eyes protruding like a frog”, and another for having “a slim waist like a wasp!” Another complement that has completely gone out of fashion today is “gajagamini”,
the woman who walks with the swaying gait of an elephant. Today, in theworld of twig thin models, we are no longer infatuated with overweight elephants, however graceful they might be. Instead our praise goes to the woman who walks like a cat, a much slimmer animal!

We also get a glimpse of many outdated customs like counting wealth by cows. Cows were cited first of all to signify someone’s prosperity, even before the gold was counted, and many stories revolve around the theft of cows. Cows were also the most frequently given gifts to Brahmins, friends, and even daughters during marriage. Regarding marriage, other outdated customs were seen: Draupadi wore a white sari in her swayamvar. In fact, white was worn by many other royal characters too and praised for being pure and clean. Today this fashion has come full circle and any woman wearing white for her wedding would be branded as extremely radical in Nepal. Red, however, has retained its importance throughout these years, it is mentioned many times as an auspicious color. Draupadi and Subhadra are praised for wearing a red sari after marriage, and Yudhishthir is recommended to keep “soldiers who wear red” around him.
Bull eyed, wasp waisted, blue haired Draupadi with Jayadrath of thighs like Sala trees. Wonderful artwork by Philip Malpass www.philipmalpass.com

Many myths that have captured our imagination and that we take for granted today actually do not exist in the original text. The foremost of them is the fish that Arjun shot down at Draupadi Swayamvar. In the book, there is no fish and no reflection of it either, there is just a mechanical contraption in the sky that the suitor is supposed to shoot with five arrows. The catch was the bow that was too heavy for anyone to lift except Arjun (and unintentionally, Karna). Draupadi herself took the decision to reject Karna, without any advice from Krishna. Krishna’s advice is similarly lacking from the story of Jarasandha. The TV version of Jarasandha’s death showed Bhim tearing Jarasandha’a body apart and Jarasandha coming alive again by joining the torn parts. In the book, Bhim kills Jarasandha after thirteen days of wrestling by simply breaking his back, and Jarasandha does not regenerate from it. The incident of Krishna breaking two straws and giving hints to Bhim just never occurs.

Duryodhan was a surprise package as I found generally unknown information about him. He is frequently called Suyodhan as well Duryodhan, though no explanation is given for the simultaneous use of both these names (that happen to rhyme). Suyodhan means good warrior while Duryodhan means undefeatable warrior. When Duryodhan falls down into a deceptive lake that looks like the floor, Draupadi does not utter the statement “Duryodhan is the blind son of a blind father.” In fact, no one utters this statement, made famous by the TV serial and blamed for causing the entire Mahabharat war, only Bhim and other Pandavs laugh at Duryodhan. Shakuni does not live in Duryodhan’s palace, and he becomes a major character only when the dice game begins. His dice is not made of his father’s bones as believed, and he wins through sheer deceit.

In contrast, some myths and gods that were popular in those days have completely disappeared from the public eye today. For example, Vayu, Dharma, Agni, Mitra, Varun, and the Ashwins are frequently mentioned as influential deities. In the heyday of these now forgotten gods, the trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva was in the distant future. Brahma and Shiva were already major gods, Brahma was often referred to as “the soul of the universe”, and many kings were devotes of Shiva. Vishnu however, is referred to as “the younger brother of Indra”, which is his sole claim to fame at this point. Though he was regarded as a fierce warrior, he was by no means regarded as the great protector of the universe as he is today. Instead, kings often prayed to Indra, called ”wielder of the thunderbolt”, a powerful deity who controlled rain and created drought if unappeased. These stories provide us with a glimpse of early stages of Hinduism and tell us that our religion is ever changing.

Source: English Translation of unabridged Mahabharata by Kisari Mohan Ganguly
Thanks to Philip Malpass for letting me use his art. More of his wonderfully realistic emotions can be found at http://www.paintpot.bizland.com/index.html

This article was published in the kathmandu post. http://www.ekantipur.com/2011/07/31/oped/a-few-mahabharata-tidbits/338294.html

Jul 21, 2011

What is the stupidest Rule?

The question was, which of road rules is the stupidest? And if I decipher correctly, many travelers are exasperated with the small size of airline baggage. Here are the official results:

16 inch carry on 4 (50%)
Only 2 pieces of carry on 0 (0%)
No ice cream on bus 2 (25%)
Conspiracy of tour companies 0 (0%)
Tour buses that stop in the middle of nowhere 2 (25%)

Shaili thinks I should have included an "all of the above" option. Too bad I forgot that on time. Thank you everyone for voting!

Jul 9, 2011

Rules of the road

On a recent tour of Western America, I found out that travel involves so many things I had never thought of before. The first of those was luggage. The plane we took wouldn’t allow us to have a normal luggage bag, and their size limitation was 16 inches. Sure, ladies can pack their makeup kits and a scarf and gentlemen their shaving kits and a few socks, but nothing else would fit in it. If you are like me and pack 21 separate pieces for a 7 day trip, not counting extra pairs of shoes, then you are in bad luck. Either change only your makeup for the entire trip (the same outfit for all photos? Horrors of horrors!! Imagine the facebook comments!), or pay thirty dollars extra.

When I finally paid thirty dollars and got rid of the itsy bitsy plane, we were faced with even more rules in the next phase of the tour. In fact, one rule was painfully slapped on our face on top of Hoover dam. As the light was pretty good, we decided to take pictures. Soon, the sunlight was scorching us, and we decided to go for ice cream. Unfortunately, the rest of the passengers had had the right idea and had gone for ice cream first, so were at the fag end of a very long line. By the time we got ice cream, the guide told us it was time to go. But when we were about to board the bus, he stopped us. “Ice cream not allowed on bus, you eat here” he told us.

Under the scorching gaze of 61 passengers who would have liked nothing better than to shove the ice-creams down our throats, our dreams of slowly enjoying the ice cream somehow evaporated into thin air. We chomped our ice creams like chiura, an experience that I am not eager to repeat. Finally, the driver started the bus and kept the engine running, and the hint was not subtle at all. With baleful looks, we threw the rest of the coveted ice creams into a dustbin and climbed the bus.

We were muttering about the stupid rules on tour buses when we saw someone breaking a rule that not even a five year old would break! We were taken to a chocolate factory where a lady gave every person two small bits of chocolates to sample. Shortly before our turn, a person ahead of us on the queue reached behind the counter and grabbed a big piece of chocolate. Not surprisingly, the lady was pretty angry. “Please don’t reach behind the counter” she almost yelled as she took the bag of chocolates away. We would have assumed that this rule doesn’t need to be written, but we were wrong.

Later on, we found even more sinister unwritten rules of travelling. The conglomerate of tour companies, for example. While selecting our tour package, we had scouted several different tour companies before zeroing in on our decision. But on the trip we realized those efforts had been in vain, even if we had chosen a different tour company, we would have ended up with the same one. My friend happened to observe a man handling his tour papers. His receipts seemed to be from a different tour company – only they were not, as he was on the same tour as us. It looked like the same company had different websites with different enticing American names, like Sea Gull tours or Western tours, etc, and in the end all the bookings and dealings went to the same Chinese agent.

Similar cooperation was also seen at lunchtimes. Like the night buses of Nepal which always stop at the same place for lunch, these tour buses also seemed to have particular hangouts. Like in Nepal, these tour buses stopped in the middle of nowhere with only one eatery in sight. We had no choice but to eat wherever the bus stopped, which always happened to be a Chinese place. It was also invariably a buffet, which meant that we could not split the cost and share food, we would each have to pay a fixed buffet price, ranging anywhere from ten to fifteen dollars per person.

Similar cooperation extended to passengers too. The Chinese people were always prepared for any eventuality. If it was raining, they had umbrellas while we got wet, and if it was snowing, they had thick arctic jackets while we shivered. They always seemed to know where the best restaurants were, even at new places. Often when we didn’t see any shops around, they would be seen coming back with bags of delicacies. I bet all those instructions were only given in Chinese.

We had seen so many unwritten rules that when finally faced with a written one, we just ignored it. Sure, I knew that the plane allowed only two pieces of luggage, but I pushed my luck and brought my computer and my purse along with the hand carry, making it three pieces in all. I was prepared to carry my laptop in my lap the whole time, but the lady at the counter would have none of it, so I had to push it into my purse willy-nilly. Satisfied with the arrangement, the woman at the counter let me go, even though half of the laptop was sticking out of my dainty purse. Later, the trains of Chicago prominently displayed the message that solicitation and gambling are illegal on board. The message was also repeatedly broadcast on the speakers, and I wondered if these problems were serious enough for such vehement warnings. I wonder if the game of solitaire on my computer would count (Probably not)! Last but not the least, I came across two written rules at a restaurant that needed no second guesses. The first one said “there will be $5 charges for whining”. No wonder we ate our food in complete silence.

Spring Creek Cafe, Missouri

The second sign said “Danger Men Cooking”, that says just how good men are at cooking! I wish all rules of the road were so clearly spelled out!

Also Spring Creek Cafe, Missouri

P.S. Recently seen rule: As we were driving by on a roadside we saw a sign: "Road Closed Ahead." we ignored it and continued on our own way. After driving for 15 minutes, we saw that the road was really closed. We turned around, and when we got back to the original place, we saw that the backside had something written too. It said "I told you so!"

Published, yippe http://www.ekantipur.com/2011/07/10/oped/rules-of-the-road/337126.html

Jul 1, 2011

What’s your secret name?

I have never given much thought to the tradition of naming children in my community, but recently, a couple of conversations put our strange practices into perspective. The first conversation was with Mala Prasai, my neighbor who recently gave birth to a beautiful baby girl. Coincidentally, I visited them on the eleventh day of the baby’s birth, the day when the baby’s naming ceremony would be normally held in Nepal.

“So did you decide on the name yet?” I asked Mala bhauju.

“Yes, her name is Riddhima” she replied. “Normally in Nepal we may not decide on the baby’s name until the baby is much older. Sometimes we decide on the name only when the baby starts going to school. But here it is different, at the hospital they told us that they would require the baby’s name immediately after it was born, so we had to choose the name beforehand.” And the registration was not the only concern. Mala bhauju further informed me that in the hospital, the baby’s crib is decorated according to its sex, pink blankets and accessories for girls, and blue for boys. So, in consideration of everyone else, the baby’s name and sex should be well known even before the birth.

Later the topic of baby names crept up again in conversation with two American friends, Melissa and Teal. The conversation started innocently enough with Melissa asking me what my name meant. “Sewa means to serve someone charitably” I told her. Phew! What a complicated explanation! Melissa’s own name had a very simple and sweet meaning. “Melissa means a honey-bee” she told me. And her middle name, Joy, needed no clarification (only inspired envy in my heart, wish I had such a cheerful name!) Teal informed us that her name meant a color, a shade of blue.

“So how do you go about choosing the baby’s name in Nepal?” Melissa asked me. “Here we choose the baby’s name from a book of names. Do you have a book of baby names as well?”

“First of all the baby’s zodiac is decided according to the moment of its birth, and you name the baby according to the zodiac. Different letters are assigned to different zodiacs, so your name has to start from one of those predefined letters assigned to your zodiac.” I told her. “The parents give their children some other name once they are older and a formal name is required.” I had never realized that nwaran ko nam could be so complicated.

“So you use the baby’s first name for the first few years and the middle name when the baby gets older?” Teal asked me. Uh-oh, this was murky waters.

“No, the first name decided from zodiac is actually never formally used, it is only for religious purposes, only your family knows this name.” I tried to explain.

“So is it like a nickname that your family calls you by?” Melissa asked me again.

“No, nobody uses that name. These names are really old fashioned usually and parents like to give their children modern names later. Their second name that the parents register for school is the one that is formally used.” I tried again. ”The first name is a kind of a secret name actually, that you normally don’t tell people.” There, that was interesting and mysterious!

“Oh, I didn’t know all this” said Teal.

“Me neither, so do you have a secret name?” Melissa asked me.

“No, my parents liked the name that was given at the baby naming ceremony so they didn’t give me a different name, though my sister has one....”

“What do you mean given? Don’t you get to choose the name?” Melissa was curious again.

“No, this first name is chosen by the priest and later if the parents want they can change it” I told her.

“Oh it’s like Jewish people” Teal piped up. She informed us that if Jewish people were religious, they could get a holy person to name their child, and they could end up with old fashioned names. Well, that was some new information, and it was interesting to know that other ethnic groups had similar culture to our own. This conversation made me realize how strange our practices might seem from an outsider’s point of view. It also made me look at my own culture more closely, and try to understand the reasons and meaning of our practices. I had never realized that a practice that we take for granted could be so confusing once I tried to explain it!
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