Thursday, March 3, 2011

Interlude... Fermentation Fugue

I arrived in Ahmedabad almost two weeks ago. One of the fastest growing cities in the world, this sprawling metropolis of 4.5 million is the largest population center in the state of Gujurat-a territory in West India with a per capita GDP more than twice that of India as a whole, and with more people than California, Washington, and Oregon combined. In other words, it is big, and loud, and busy, and did I say loud?

Getting to know the city can be tough. To explain why, I need to cite a well-known neuroscience experiment referred to sometimes as the “kitty gondola study”. In this study, researchers manipulated the ability of kittens to explore their environment and found that the ability to process visual information was contingent upon the kitten’s agency. In other words, if a cat is unable to explore it's environment through its own volition, the visual cortex develops abnormally. Even if the freedom-deprived cats are put in a sling coordinated to mimic a free partner's movements, those ‘gondola kitties’ are unable to develop the fully functional visual cortex’s necessary for spatial reasoning. Analogously, I find it impossible for me to know a city, to perceive its atomic units and their logic, until I have navigated it under my own direction. This makes Ahmedabad a bewildering place for me. The city is nearly impossible to walk through. Perched in the back of a rickshaw like a human version of the “gondola kitten”, my mental map of the city undergoes daily permutations something like an urban Rubics cube.

So, for the last few days I have ditched the rickshaw as much as possible and taken to the crowded streets by sandal. Most walks have been unplanned and haphazard, but this morning I was able to participate in a guided heritage walk through the old walled part of the city. Ahmedabad is divided in two by the Sabarmati River. On the east bank lies the old city ca. 1400, a warren of interconnected neighborhoods known as Pols (ie: house). With ancient terraces (girded in mythical elephant-dragon-lion figures hand-carved from Burmese teak) overhanging narrow alleys, the old city is markedly different from where I spend most of my time here- the bustling broad-laned sprawl to the west of the Sabarmati. However, there is an underlying rhythm to life that unifies these disparate arrangements of space, and it has a sound track.

For me, space is intricately linked to pace, and I am beginning to orient myself to both by way of sound. Ahmedabad starts it’s day like an old car, increasing noise with motion. Put. Put. PUT!. With the highest density of two-wheeled transportation in south Asia, the symphony of horns begins at six, builds till 10, and crescendo’s until after midnight. For a few moments in the evening, when the sun goes down, the speed of the city downshifts audibly. Roadside temples open up, people crowd around blocking traffic, and the music(?) begins- drums, gongs, symbols, bells- so loud it hurts. Then it is back to random firework explosions, cows mooing, and the constant undertone of a million differently tuned rickshaw horns. In a funny way, my spatial perception of the city- it’s distances and volumes- grows and shrinks in coordination with the landscape’s musical score.

Now I measure the distance to Gandhi’s ashram on the Sabarmati by tamber and tempo. At ten in the morning, it is ten minutes of soft rickshaw rumble. By mid-day, it is a twenty minute free jazz solo by a Million Mediocre Miles Davis Mimics (car horns), and at sunset the full band has taken over, but the length of the song depends on how many people are getting married along the way (nightly wedding processions gleefully take over entire roads, with the groom riding on horseback to his brides home, accompanied by a marching band and firework tossing mobs).

At Gandhi's house

In the unification of space, time, and noise, all of this is but a prelude to the real show (as far as I am concerned). Setting the stage for Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner. This post is long enough as it is, so I will leave the gustatory highlights of my experience thus far until next time. But, as a preview I can tell you that the Thali has rocked my world, and that fermented foods of mention include Dosa’s, Idli’s, and Dahi. For now though, I can tell, by picking up on the intro to a tune I have titled “Slight Lull in Mobile Saxophone Burping”, that I have to go to lunch.


  1. Hi Max - wowser, you've just posted so much info - complete with visuals and soundtrack - that I have to come back again to absorb more. So glad you can reconnect through your blog again so those of us back home can feel a little of your experience. I was in India for only a couple of weeks in the '90's - do the trucks still sport decals urging drivers to "Please Use Horn?"
    Thank you so much for your wonderful writing and insights. Back again soon, Jean

  2. Haha! Yes Jean. They Say, "Honk Please OK!". Everyone complies. functioning chaos.