Saturday, August 9, 2008

My view on the article (as expressed in my letter to the editor...which has so far been getting bounced back to me due to a full e-mail inbox)

Regarding the article on the front page of DNA for Sunday, August 3rd, 2008, entitled "Expats are lying low in Vashi."

As we walked back to the office, the interview having just concluded, Nicholas commented that Sameera must not have found much of our interview worthy of quotation, as she had taken only one note - a quick one when I had mentioned someone at my office recommending that I get my NOC from my real estate broker. I concurred with him. We figured the reason for that was that our story was boring - we had told her that we had noticed no change, nor had we made any changes, in our daily lives since Kenneth Haywood's e-mail account was allegedly hacked to send pre-bomb warnings to the media. We figured this would give Sameera little interesting material to put in her article.

Little did we know that, rather than an exercise in quotation-gathering, or even fact-gathering, the goal of the interview had been to acquire words. She (or her editor, or someone with access to the article pre-printing) would later mold them to manufacture falsehoods presented as facts, with the accompanying fabricated quotations to match. At first, after being happy to see my picture in the paper, I noticed that my name was misspelled. Although we had made certain that she wrote our names down correctly, going so far as to watch her do so, I still thought it vain to complain about that. I have worked as a journalist myself, and I made mistakes, too. Then I saw the title of the article, "Expats are lying low in Vashi," and thought that the other foreigners she interviewed must be adjusting their lives based on the recent incident, because we certainly had not told her that we were. As I read the article, I was surprised to see that Nicholas's "immediate concern...was to change the password of (his) Internet connection," as, when Sameera asked us if we were making any changes in response to the incident, we both stated that we really weren't, and only then did Nicholas add that he might change his e-mail password. The concern was clearly not immediate (as he mentioned it as a possibility and as an afterthought, and had obviously not even yet acted on it) and it was for e-mail, not for an Internet connection. Then I saw that the organization where he worked had asked him to get an NOC from local police officials, when in fact he hadn't mentioned anything about an NOC, and, as I have written, it was I who told her I had obtained mine from my real estate broker. However, how was she supposed to remember who said what, or what was said, when she took no notes and used no tape recorder? Maybe, if one is a very forgiving newspaper reader, and doesn't care too much about the specific facts as long as the gist of the interview is conveyed, then those errors can be written off as sloppy-but-not-intentionally-misleading journalism. But the final sentence about Nicholas was just a blatant, manipulative fabrication meant to support the article's more-interesting-than-fact premise. The article states "On the social front, Kasparek is lying low at his Vashi residence." At no point did he or I say anything of the sort. Not only that, but we stated several times that we in fact had not noticed any change in how we were treated by locals. Nicholas went so far as to state that his general feeling about Indians on this topic was that they were pretty good at keeping in mind that the actions of one individual did not represent the actions of all others who fall into the same group. I stated that I had been looking for any changes in how I was treated but had noticed none. Only in a final thought on the subject did Nicholas mention that he might changes his e-mail password, but that was his only planned concession to recent events. Nothing about lying low. Absolutely nothing.

Strangely enough, the sentence preceding the paragraph on Nicholas states that expatriates have retreated into a shell since the e-mail incident, and the sentence that immediately follows the paragraph on Nicholas states that there are, however, some who are taking things in stride. As I've said, only if considering changing one's e-mail password constitutes not only not "taking things in stride," but also "retreat(ing) into a shell" do the sentences framing the paragraph on Nicholas ring of truth.

Sameera seemed very nice at the interview, as did the photographer, and initially, I was very happy to see my picture in the paper, even with my name misspelled, but seeing first-hand what passes for journalism in this paper was relatively disturbing. Are all the facts manipulated to form more interesting stories?

I don't want Sameera to be fired, or even punished. I'd just like measures to be taken so that this kind of thing doesn't occur anymore. I mean, come on. Don't make interview subjects liars. That's unfair to them and to your readers.

- Matthew McHugh

Jaundiced Journalism

In the paper, under the item at the following link, they claimed I was Matthew McChugh, but we know better...\03082008\MATTHEW44-large.jpg&eddate=8/3/2008&pageno=1&edition=20&prntid=71495&bxid=912&pgno=1

Friday, May 9, 2008

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Some Things to Recommend India

OK, I’ve gotten some comments that there’s a hint of an ugly American attitude in my postings. This, as it turns out, is untrue. However, I’ll say the following: I admit that I do focus on the negative a good bit in an attempt to be humorous, but I believe I present the truth, and I try to give the events that I write about fair coverage – maybe I’ll choose to write about an episode that is less than flattering toward Indians or India (or, Mumbaikars or Mumbai, or Navi Mumbaikars or Navi Mumbai), but I’ll present that episode fairly. At least, I think I do. I think that if I feel that I haven’t, I don’t feel good about it, and therefore I alter it. But OK, fine, I’ll write about some nice things in India – prepare to be bored.

My training occurred with two girls, Kirti and Samyuktha (hencefore sometimes referred to as Sam). Everyone at the company, really, has been very nice, but in the beginning, since we didn’t really know anyone else, we stuck with each other. So we ate lunch tea together...(I ate cookies while Kirti got tea; Sam watched.) Training was to last seven days in that office, at which point Sam and I were to move to the other office, leaving Kirti.

Kirti was constantly checking up on me, asking how I was, asking how I felt, if I was homesick. On my birthday – a day even an old friend I’d talk to later that evening would forget the significance of (at the company – actually, in all of India – only Kirti and Sam knew it was my birthday) – Kirti even brought in a chocolate bar for me. For the last two days of training, she told me not to order any lunch (of course, I had never even attempted to order, but had gotten other people to order for me) because her mom would be making a double order of chapatti (a kind of tortilla-y thing) and green stuff so that I could have homemade food.

Sam didn’t offer to bring me food, even after we left Kirti behind, and despite my suggestion that it would be nice of her. But this shouldn’t reflect poorly upon Indian hospitality, as she had recently gotten back from spending three years in the island nation of Mauritius (no, I swear, it’s a place…no, I asked if she meant Mauritania, too, but apparently she was right; I looked it up…no, not Maldives – this place is an island too, it seems), and undoubtedly such an extended foreign experience caused her to at least temporarily forget her Indian hospitality. But yes, I will always remember Kirti and her mother as having been extremely generous, considerate, and welcoming when I was new here.

Of course, any mention of the hospitality I’ve received in India would be sorely incomplete without mentioning that of Arun and Susheel, who allowed me to stay at their place for a month and a half (and, in the case of Susheel, gave up his bed for that long, sleeping on a sleeping bag on a marble floor with a bean bag as a pillow, and acting as my personal entertainment coordinator, providing me with an introduction to Indian in general and Mumbai in particular, including segments on history, culture, personal experience, etc., and playing a large role in helping me move into my new place while making me feel that I was never such a burden that he was hoping I would.)

The company is a very friendly one. It has a very good atmosphere, especially compared to what I’ve heard about other places (from my friends in the U.S., from my friends in Poland, and from my friends here). Dress is casual (I dress as I did in college). People are informal, friendly, and helpful.

Indians seems quite nice to me, although they stare at me too much for my liking, but I that goes along with sticking out. And as I’ve said, if I stare back at them and then smile, I usually receive one in return. The ones who don’t smile back, though – I really want to punch them in the face (which demonstrates my pleasant demeanor, I know.)

Another interesting thing I’ve noticed here is that either things happen at lightning-fast speeds, or they happen at molasses-slow speeds. I inquired about a bed mattress at one store, told them I didn’t have the money with me, and was told that, if it was acceptable, a delivery would occur in 30 minutes. It was, and it did. I recently went to a hardware store located among the storefronts that occupy space at the bottom of my apartment building. I pantomimed that my fan had ceased to spin, while peppering the charade with words like “fan,” “stopped,” and “broken.” Looking back, I probably conjugated too much, but no one’s perfect. Still, it seemed to work, as they decided it must be the condenser (a word I’d heard used to describe the fan operating box before). They opened a book and asked me my address, so I was satisfied that they would probably call me up when they had someone available. Instead, they said, “Fifteen minutes,” which barely gave me enough time to go straight up from there (OK, maybe I had 10 minutes to spare). Actually, it turned out that I had 40 minutes to spare, as the electrician arrived half an hour late. But still, not bad. Then he told me (through Arun, who translated via the phone) that my fan weren’t gonna be able to be repaired, and I needed a new one. I said OK. He quoted a price. I said OK. He was gone in a flash. Five minutes later, he was back with a fan. Ten minutes after that, I had a brand new fan rapidly rotating in my hall. Not bad, India. Not bad at all...

In a similar incident, one Sunday afternoon I asked my landlord about getting my shower fixed and, though he was leaving on his motorcycle at the time, I was told that I should immediately go upstairs, as a plumber would be arriving presently. The fact that the plumber never arrived, and that I still have no functional shower, make this example less apt, but still, I was initially quite impressed.

In contrast, I received a notice that said my landlord hadn’t paid his apartment society dues in 16 months. A week later, a bank agent came calling on a Sunday afternoon to inform me that the owner hadn’t paid his apartment-purchasing loan payments in nearly a year and that if he didn’t decide to begin doing so pronto, the apartment would fall back under the control of the bank, and I’d be told to find other residence. I immediately called the real estate broker, who got in touch with the owner, who said he’d make the payment the next day (Monday) no problem. When the bank agent called on Tuesday to say that no payment had been made, I was somewhat surprised. I again had the real estate agent call up the owner, who said he’d make the payment the next day. So, when, returning home from work on Friday, I was greeted by a notice on my door that stated that I was no longer allowed to occupy the premises (only the owner now was), I was, again, rather surprised. Of course, where the hell else am I gonna go, I thought, and proceeded to continue my ongoing occupation of the premises. The next day, of course, when he was called, the owner said he was leaving right then to go make the payment…When, according to the bank agent, the owner still hadn’t arrived by the end of the day…well, I wasn’t too surprised anymore. The truly surprising thing was that, the following Monday, he did indeed present a check to the bank agent. Three weeks later, I am still awaiting the banking agent’s confirmation call that this check has proved to be good (Yes, Dad, I did call the bank agent, but, after having placed repeated calls up to ten days after the bank agent received the check, and being told that, while the check hadn’t bounced, it wasn’t yet clear that it has passed, either, I decided to just take his word that he’d call me). As it turns out, going about my business under this residential Sword of Damocles isn't really that bad.


I walked into my room and thought, “Holy Cow, that’s the biggest insect I’ve ever seen,” as what looked like a huge silverfish scampered down the wall. After I realized it was in reality a lizard, I walked to the other room to check how far opened was the window through which the Internet cable was fed, which I figured must have been his port of entry. About a second before my ETA for reaching said window, I saw, hiding behind some furniture (an empty cardboard box is currently my standard furniture unit) the seventh smallest alligator I’d ever seen (I saw half a dozen babies last fall in South Carolina). Then I realized that this six-inch-long, ¾-inch wide amphibious-looking creature was indeed a larger version of what I’d encountered moments ago, or at least some type of cousin.

I find myself thinking like a camper who’s pleasantly surprised every night when he finds that he has a soft (relatively) cushion to lie upon, a pillow, a fan, a locked door, and only a countable number of creatures within his present field of vision right before he closes his eyes for sleep. So what if there’s a lizard I’d need two hands to feel confident fighting – he’s not going to bother me under my net…even though I do sleep on the ground. I can’t even imagine what business he’d have down here. He’s sunning in the light of my fluorescent bulb in the other room, 7 feet up.

I’ve also learned to be a considerate roommate. With so many creatures going in and out on a daily basis (some prefer to come back here at night – actually, most of them…but now that they’re telling their friends about it – we’ll eventually have some day guests, I’m sure), I find that it’s best for all involved if I give a little knock on the kitchen or bathroom door before I enter, just in case the bugs are still reconnoitering the kitchen counter, or, say, the terrible lizard hasn’t yet crawled to a comfortable position behind my water tank - not that the tank currently HAS any water. Apparently there’s some way that I can leave the house without any water running and return with an empty tank and EVEN AN EMPTY TOILET TANK. This lizard is big, but I’m fairly certain he doesn’t flush. I think it has something to do with drainage/leakage/running that occurs when water inundates the usually bone dry municipal pipes for the (up to three, I believe) hours a day that it does. As to the actual mechanism, I’m not sure. But I did wake up the other day, when water was again in the municipal pipes, to the sound of water running out of the tap in my sink, meaning I left the tap open when there was no water, and when water arrived, it just kept on goin’. But an empty toilet tank? What’s up with that?

Discovering God Through Infestation

I’m not vengeful. I’m not even angry. I just need you to stop doing that, thank you, and en masse, and this seems like the most efficient way. So I bring down upon the ants what they no doubt see as a great deluge, washing them off of whatever item they’re swarming over and on down the drain. Do I get some satisfaction from it? Only because, of all the repeated warnings, none have been heeded. Still, I am not proud of this. And every time, I think that, if you would all only stop, repent, reform, then we wouldn’t have to do this, and we would have a much more harmonious existence…and if I could inspire a handful of the crazier ones to communicate this to the rest, then I would do so in a second…and if it even took me somehow miniaturizing my only son and molding him into ant form to get those bastards to pay attention…well, no, I wouldn’t do that. That’s kinda messed...but yeah, you would have to so love those little bastards to do something like that, right? Even with that difference of opinion, I think we’re still pretty much on the same wavelength. So yeah, God. I get cha’. And do I think it’s likely that in some not-exactly-analogous-manner, we’re ants in God’s apartment? Yup I do. I mean, if he isn’t actually perfect, or even omnipotent, but just so much more powerful and intelligent than we are that it often seems like it, then that’d clear up a whole lotta questions, wouldn’t it? Hey, do you really think we look like him, or do ya’ think he just said that to be nice?

The Zen of Things Not Working

It may be thought that true calm is achieved meditating in a sunny field somewhere. (somewhere not in Mumbai – here it’s too frikkin’ hot). But I think maybe Zen is achieved when it’s presented to one as the only option. Who needs to be calm while sitting in a field? Sure, you might be calm, ‘cuz you don’t have anything else to think about. But you could also be bored or happy or restless or hot (especially if the field’s in Mumbai in the spring (which the Indians call summer – not to be confused with an Indian summer, which occurs in autumn)). But I think you learn to be calm about things when they are a man’s voice amplified through speakers and coming through your window at 7 a.m., calling people to prayer (just in case they are only absent because they, y’know, forgot…or didn’t know…or foolishly believed sleep was an alternative) and this ridiculously amplified voice is shouting at you when you want a few more hours sleep even though it’s not that great anyway because it’s only on a thin mattress on the floor in a hot room. Or when you are in that hot room on the 7th floor of an apartment building in the middle of a hot sunny day and the electricity decides to go out. When you can’t get a document because you haven’t bribed the correct people. When the water goes out for the weekend and you have a wedding to attend the next day. I think you learn to be calm about things when your only other option is insanity. And I do sense that people here have a calm with which I do not frequently come into contact. They do get angry, but at a lower rate than I’m used to.

I think what you must learn is that you can get through it, that it’s not that bad, that it’ll be OK and maybe even better than you expected, and you really can’t do much about it anyway so what the heck?

I’m not sure, because I haven’t achieved this Zen, but that’s my current hypothesis.

The Game of the Name (Steelers-related)

I'm not certain of the methodology used by the Pittsburgh Steelers when choosing which players to draft, but from yesterday's first two picks, it seems like incongruous or misleading names is a large part of it. I must say that, while I prefer Limas Sweed, Rashard Mendenhall, in the immortal words of Darius Rucker (Hootie), "’s not far behind." Limas Sweed? That takes me back...back, before the expedited NFL draft, before the two-point conversion endeared itself to NFL sensibilities...before Tim Brown, Jim Brown, or even Paul Brown...back to the Deep South, on a hot, humid, lazy summer’s day, when Melba and I was lyin' out 'neath the weepin' willow, fannin' ourselves and damn near runnin' the kitchen help to exhaustion the way we was callin' for more lemonade every five minutes, it seemed. But then, what was a girl to do - the heat woulda' had Old Gooseberry himself moppin' his brow, although you know that that Cloven Hoof'd rake woulda' mopped his sulfuric perspiration with nothing less than the kerchiefs of dearly departed unbaptised babies...But that name...that name...what was it? Yes, I remember now...Melba heard it first - had ears like an Injun, I always told her - but soon 'nough I caught it, too...and you couldn't make it out, none, 'cept to know it came from a man with important things to say, either sayin' them, or sayin' he was 'bout to say them...and we followed the sound to the town square - that great voice, resonating with the authority of a thunderclap and the import of a tidal wave - and just as our ever-quickening pace brought us close enough to glimpse the stately visage whence that regal baritone rang out its gravely call, he spoke these immortal words:

“As sure as my name is Limas Sweed, your elected Congressman, in this, the great State of Louisiana, I give you my word that those Niggas won’t be acquiring any of the rights afforded the white population of this municipality here and now, in 1855, or at any time hereafter!”

Yes, great cheers and much whooping and hollering did follow that pronouncement. And why shouldn’t they have, as a great man had just announced a great proclaimation. However, this man knew that, while people love a wonderful bit of artful and spirited oration, the tide of emotion carries one only so far, and more practical concerns must also be tended to. He continued:

“Now, y’all don’t forget to join me at the local branch of Southern Bank, where Mr. Rashard Mendenhall has been kind enough to offer free financial advice after temple today.”

After a pause, he added:

“I just ask that you not keep him too long, as my cotton's not going to pick itself...”

Yes, though it seems like yesterday, it was, in the immortal words of Robert “Bob” Seger, “long ago.” However, the wide receiver Mr. Sweed’s parents have brought a hint of that kinder, gentler time back to the here-and-now, and Kevin Colbert and, I can only assume, the surly-yet-charismatic Michael Tomlin have done their part to bring just a whiff of that scent of quiescent antebellum harmony to Western Pennsylvania.

I await in heady anticipation the third-round pick of the Pittsburgh Steelers . Will it be that young buck Mario Manningham? (As opposed to that young man Mario Buckingham.) Who else could romance the women of Pittsburgh (or plumb for them…) while also carrying on the efficient colonization of Blawnox. Or maybe Red Bryant – a welcome sight, that of him every Sunday inspiring his charges on toward victory sometime in the Eisenhower 50s with a spirited phrase forged in Mother Nature's fickle flame (which, of course, serves as nothing less than the wellspring of the rough-hewn poetry of the Midwestern farmer), all the while sporting a bit of idiosyncratic headwear perched proudly atop his head. Or possibly Early Doucet, who would surely parlay his stardom into spokesmanship for breakfast custard. Either that, or for some company that specializes in unusual cuts of juvenile venison (Don’t get it? Look up doucet. Still don’t get it? Sorry, not everything here is hilarious.) Or perhaps, inspired by the success of the Pittsburgh Passion last season, the team will finally recognize the equality of the sexes, and how useful a female perspective on things could be, and draft Erin Henderson to back that line.

Friday, April 4, 2008

From Vashi to the Village in One Right Turn

We turned right off of Palm Beach Road, one of the two main roads in Vashi, this suburb of Mumbai, onto a street clogged with rickshaws and shops and vendors, some 7 blocks away from where I’d stayed for 6 weeks, where I was told that several East Asian families lived, when the topic of diversity came up. I, in all my whiteness, dressed in all my Americanness (shorts), and she, in all her brown South Asianness, dressed in Western clothes. We were an 8-minute rickshaw ride and 45 minute train ride from downtown Bombay, and yet these people looked at us as if they’d never seen a white guy before, and as if this first-seen white man had come and taken away one of their village’s girls. But no, it really wasn’t me they were staring at. Despite the phrase “Gora memsahib,” or “white man’s woman,” floating to us on the wind at one point, they were undoubtedly staring at her. And right at her. Their eyes and faces staring at her with unselfconscious concentration like she were a gold coin in their crap, or a dog with 7 legs – certainly not like she were someone equipped with functional eyes and a sense of awareness. Once the sound of traffic dies away, the scene there is indistinguishable from that in a village in the middle of Maharashtra – and not too easily distinguishable from that in a village in the middle of Maharashtra in the middle of the 19th century. We pass stands upon stands with chickens in cages, something I hadn’t before seen in Bombay. We pass one guy frying up some of his chickens. We pass vegetable mongers with their produce arrayed under holey tarps. We pass roosters; we pass chickens. We pass cows and we pass bulls. We pass children defecating in the street. Then we realize we’ve passed everything, and there’s still no main road. There’s only a dead end formed by a few houses. I suggest that she ask someone how to return to the road. She doesn’t agree that that’s the best option. I can't speak Hindi. We double back to where we saw a much-used footpath. Past the children. Past the chickens. Past an uncomfortably proximate bull. As we reach the path, we can see that it ends at a main road – not that that means we’re free from stares and glares. In following this path out, the children look up at us. The men in the shop look over at us. The women on the balconies look down at us. Usually, in other situations, when I've seen Indians staring at me, a look straight into their eyes, and then a smile, elicits the same. But these people are barely aware I’m there. They’re just staring at her in her sleeveless black shirt with edges of the pink tank top underneath highlighting the corners. She’s wearing unsensible high-soled sandals and black pants with cargo pockets and tie strings on the cuffs. I’m sure they’re aware of that, but as they walk past, I see (and, after a while, I realize I can observe them with impunity – stare at them the way they stare at her – enabled by the fact they don’t take their eyes off her) that they don’t seem to be focusing their stares at her clothes, but just at her face. My best guess is that maybe they're trying to see what a gora-befriending westernized girl looks like up close.

Friday, March 28, 2008

The Quest for a Medium Hold with the Dry Look

Having forgotten to pack my Crew Fiber hairstyling product, I walked into the hair salon. I asked the woman sitting behind the counter, "Do you sell Crew hairstyling products?" The woman said, "We only have lawyer here." I looked around, knowing that Indian lawyers have to wear a kind of white neckerchief thing, and usually wear suits. Many of the people were dressed in suits or business-like attire, but I noticed no neckerchiefs...I turned back to the woman and asked, "You only cater to lawyers?" She said, "We only have lawyer here." I asked, "The only people allowed in here are those who argue the law in court?" Again, she said, "We only have laywer," and pointed to a wall, from the top part of which hung a sign in foot-high letters reading "L'Oreal." I smiled, thanked her, and left.

No Generalizations

I don't mean to generalize, but Indians/Mumbaikars/the people I've met here, on the whole, seem to have some behavioral commonalities that Americans might call peculiarities. They'll insist that you come over to their house. You'll have refreshments forced upon you. You'll be offered the best seat. Then you'll be asked your age, asked if you're a virgin, and told that you'll be bald soon. As you look down to try to figure out how to digest it all, the food'll be sitting there, having been served. You'll be told to eat. When you look back up from it, all eyes will still be on you, waiting for answers.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Bottled Water, Beggars and the Head Wiggle

Bottled water here is referred to as Bisleri, which was the first brand of bottled water in the area, or at least the first highly successful one. Today, I ordered a Bisleri and got a bottle of Oxyrich, so called because it has “300% more oxygen,” which is good, ‘cuz where else would I get my daily supply of oxygen if not in my drinking water? And, though I can’t quite seem to taste it, I know it’s there, ‘cuz it says so right on the label. Now, 300% more than what is not made entirely clear. Apparently, 300% more than anything that has only ¼ as much oxygen…and that’s so obvious, I don’t know why I ever desired specification.

The beggars are nothing if not persistent. Everyone has told me not to give them anything, that they live outside of any system of oversight, that the children are just being used by adults to earn the adults money, that if it weren’t profitable they’d do something else, that if it isn’t profitable, maybe there’s the small chance that eventually some of them will do find something better. Of course, no one’s saying that sleeping on the street is a nice existence. But your money is probably better used going to some organization to help them than to them directly. But today, walking alone, as an obvious outsider (read "assumed to be a rich tourist"), a woman approached me, walked with me, even put the bottom of a stick with an small Indian flag on it in my hand. It reminded me of the gypsies in Malaga, Spain (although, admittedly, they weren’t as pathetic). Once, when I’d been there a while, and a gypsy lady shoved a sprig of evergreen in my face, I grabbed it, gave her 5 peseta cents (which I think was a little less than an American penny at the time), and kept on walking. A few paces on, she was at my side, indicating that she was not going to accept this trade, and that we would be unexchanging. Susheel, who’s currently sleeping on the floor so that I may take his bed, said something to that effect about the beggars who shove rotating, colorful lit-up spinning-on-a-string toys in your face here – that if you give them less than 5 rupees, they give you a look of disdain. Well, I crossed the street to avoid this flag-waving beggar, only to encounter two little girls, maybe 5 and 3, the older of whom kept grabbing at my hand as I was walking. I found an Indian couple, and followed them through traffic, as I’m far from experienced enough to cross the road at an intersection (I always take at least one, and preferably more, Indian blockers before every traversal), as my current knowledge is based only on what I assume are the traffic laws, and my reflexes, only the latter of which is much help (Actually, as far as I can tell, the rules are these: When in doubt, stop. Above all, never back up.) So I followed this couple, but the children followed me. We weaved between sometimes-moving auto rickshaws, cars, and buses, the couple, followed by me, followed by the 5 year old, followed by the 3 year old. Finally, at the other side of the intersection, when the 5 year old had had enough, I guess, instead of her tugging on my arm, I felt my arm being slapped. It wasn’t hard, but I think that’s only cuz she missed her mark. Not good business practice, but I don’t think she was concerned about future business at that point.

Then I made my way to the cyber cafĂ©, which if it took you 7 steps to cross from one side to the other, is only because you’re very short and/or extremely feeble. And if you could lie down widthwise in the place, it’s only because you’re under six (years old). There was no air conditioning. Therefore, whenever the door opened, the cool breeze from the outside 79-degree weather was quite welcome. Otherwise, it was OK. I had to leave before I was done, however, because the power outage started at 3.
I may have said this before, but, in general, the people seem very nice. No one has been rude to me (at least, that I’ve comprehended (well, save for the beggar girl)). On the train, people are always more than willing to tell me what stop we’re at, and then, later on, to tell me when the stop I’m getting off at is approaching, recommending that I make my way toward the door, etc. Sometimes, since I don’t ride the line that goes to what is called town, or southern (downtown) Bombay, which is the main tourist destination, people ask me what my destination is, assuming I’m on the wrong train, and aiming to direct me where I desire to go. On the street, people always try to help me out when I ask. And so far, there’s been no point when I’ve felt as unsafe as I have at some times, in some places, in the U.S…or Jamaica, of course.I’ve noticed that, the Indians have an interesting (at least, I find it so) way of motioning assent. They shake their head. Not like I’m familiar with – the rotation about the spinal axis that signals dissent or a negative response. Rather, the axis of rotation is perpendicular to the face, and crosses through the nose. Sometimes it’s laterally symmetrical, sometimes it mostly or exclusively sticks to one side of the vertical. Despite knowing how it works, it’s still tough to put faith in it. “Is this Vashi Station?” I ask the guy next to me on the train, pointing in the direction of the upcoming stop. He stares at me amiably and wiggles his head, the top roughly following the circumference of a semicircle that passes through both his shoulders. I know that if he were signaling “no”, he would do it with more passion. I know he’s confirming it. But what I feel is, “He’s confused, possibly just ignorant about the station information, but really quite pleasant (delightful, actually) as he either tries to figure out the answer or expresses his unfortunate lack of knowledge and polite regret

Matrimonial Ads and the Mood in the Train

Saw a sign today on the back of a car – “Driver in training Please keep 30 foot distance.” The driver of the rickshaw I was in gave a good five feet. The motorcycle next to us gave at least two.

I’ve been reading the matrimonial section of the newspaper. They're interesting. For example: “Looking for well-educated Gupta boy in business position from good family for very pretty girl with Master’s degree earning 8 lakh (800,000 rupees) per annum.” Or “seeking beautiful girl with job in United States for wheatish boy with government position. Has three white spots on lower rear-left thigh.”

(…well, I mean, c’mon…that’s not the kinda thing you wanna only find out after you’ve had the week-long wedding, is it?)

Anyway, regarding this “Gupta boy” thing, apparently Gupta is a caste. (I asked, “They’re looking for someone with the name Gupta?” My friends answered, “No, that’s the name of a caste…but yeah, he’ll probably be named Gupta.”

Wheatish means not very light complexioned, but not dark. (Hence, not really really desireable color-wise, but probably not pitch black either.) It’s the kind of thinking that motivates the comment I heard the other day: “He’s handsome, even though he’s dark” (so stated because the speaker thought he might be judged as less handsome than he was because of his skin color, not because she judged him so.) But, actually, a recent survey indicated that most Bombayites don’t have a mating preference when it comes to skin color, and I haven't noticed that anyone cares.

Anyway, having read these matrimonial ads, I’m thinking of making up one of my own: Seeking very beautiful, extremely rich, obscenely well-educated, grotesquely well-mannered girl for U.S. boy. Has white, spot-on body.

Rode the train again the other day. The teenaged boys hang out the doors of a train as any self-respecting dog would, given the opportunity. Holding with one arm onto the door frame, or closest balance pole, they stick their pomaded heads out into the train-created breeze. Inside the general (as opposed to women’s), second-class compartment of the commuter trains, dozens upon dozens of collared-shirt, khaki-pants-wearing men and boys read the paper, sleep, or stare into space. Or into the hair or chest or shoulder of the guy next to them. The arrival of a much-awaited and packed train at a station precipitates an explosion of people through the doors – sometimes on, sometimes off, sometimes both. The disembarkers rush to beat the tidal wave of boarders, and the boarders jump on before full arrest of the train to beat their less daring or able competitors and secure a more desirable position.

It’s all a lot like a race. There’s a mad dash and the mutual awareness of competition occurring, but it’s all in good sport. No one’s left with hard feelings afterwards. Most people, except the occasional deep sleeper, goes out of his way to accommodate as much of the fourth person as possible on seats that comfortable fit three (but are only given that luxury during very low-volume times). A window seat provides several advantages – the weather here is hot enough even in the dead of this record-settingly cold winter (The low last week reached 48 F, thus requiring some Mumbaikers to go as far as putting some kind of hat or scarf on the top of their one-long-sleeved-shirt, one-pair-of-khaki-pants-wearing bodies. I have to admit that I even shivered 3 or 4 times, all of them occurring while outside at night in a T-shirt, shorts, and sandals, while in a no-door-possessing rickshaw going about 25 mph.) Like I said, the weather is usually hot enough even without other people packed around you like sardines. So a seat in general keeps you from being so tightly packed, and a window seat offers a breeze, passing scenery to look at, and something out of which to spit your tobacco juice.

Despite all this competition, the general compartment is a generally nice place, and generally quiet too. Unless you have some group of crazy singers (I experienced it on my first trip only, but it started soon after I got on, and lasted until the train got to the final destination 50 minutes later, complete with a percussionist on a drum.) But it's generally civil in the general compartment (in attitude if not in personal space allotment) and quiet. From what I hear, the ladies’ compartment is often noisy with arguments over seats or general gossip and conversations. Women may ride in the general compartment, but the ladies’ compartments are for women only. Apparently they were made to help the women avoid any unwanted contact with the men, who apparently have no such problem when it comes to the women, as there are no men's only compartments.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Mosquito Wars and the Roads of Mumbai

They have electric-powered anti-mosquito devices here that operate while plugged into an outlet. The advice I received was, “Yeah. Just plug ‘em in, close the door, wait an hour, and the mosquitoes should be done when you get back.”
“Done?” I asked.
“Yeah, man. It kills ‘em. Totally lethal to mosquitos, but totally harmless to us. Luckily.” Well, any doubts I had about the safety of these devices regarding humans were assuaged after several trials of following the usage advice. Plug it in...close the door...wait an hour, two, or a whole day - doesn’t seem to matter. The only thing killing mosquitoes in my room is type-2 diabetes.
It is clear why there are so many Indian taxi drivers in the U.S. What is surprising is that they seem to have stopped there. The auto rickshaw drivers (separate from the taxi drivers who drive cars – not in their driving styles, but in their vehicles, in the frequency with which you encounter their vehicles, in the price of their fares, and therefore in the frequency with which everyone uses each...but I digress) the auto rickshaw drivers here would make great ambulance drivers, because that’s how they drive. Ambulance drivers pass in and out of lanes without a turn signal, using whichever route is the most expeditious. I bet if you asked an auto rickshaw driver if any of the roads here had lanes, he wouldn’t be able to tell you. (The surprising answer is that many major roads do.) But these guys approach an intersection with the awareness of racecar drivers. In the U.S., say, ambulance drivers have to worry about other drivers who aren’t alert. That isn’t a problem here, because if you aren’t alert, you’ve probably been in an accident within 20 meters of your starting location. Same goes for pedestrians. Here, you only have to worry about someone else who thinks their time is more important than yours. More like auto racing than ambulance driving, I guess. The motto here definitely seems to be “If you ain’t rubbin’, you ain’t racin’.” That begs another question. Forget ambulance driving – why haven’t these guys looked into auto racing? The Italians seem to be good at it, and their streets are known for a similar level of pandemonium. Actually, the Indians have thought of that. I read yesterday that there will be some kind of auto-racing training facility, or something like that, built in India, and that the plan is to have an Indian formula one racer by 2012. I find the roads scary, worrisome, and incomprehensible. The autorickshaw driver approachs an intersection (few have traffic lights) quickly but cautiously. Some unclear-to-me but commonly understood law of nature allows one to go while another stops. Sometimes, however, there is a miscommunication, or a difference of opinion, which causes both vehicles to continue toward what, unretarded, must eventually be a collision.
From these situations, I have noticed that the option of last resort, when a driver feels he is almost certainly bound for a collision, is to stop. Right there. Never mind that the collision is with a car approaching from the right, and that you are stopping in the middle of his path. I guess the logic is that he can then swerve around you, instead of having to guess your speed and whether or not you will begin to slow down or even swerve yourself, to avoid something in front of you. Anyway, so far, when I’ve been in such situations, the other driver has stopped as well, so that then my driver and the other one just accelerate and pick up from there, and everyone's happy.
Another interesting thing is the turn signal. Not a garish blinking light on the front and back corner of an autorickshaw – you’re happy to get one that has headlights – and certainly not those crazy things I started to see in America a few months before I left – those additional turn signals implanted in the side-view mirrors. No, the auto rickshaw turn signal is a discrete partial extension of the hand out the side (and it’s to the side to which you are turning, which is contrary to the bicycle-signalling rules I learned, and impossible in a car, of course, because you’d have to be able to reach across the car if you were going to turn that way). No need to be overly enthusiastic about it. Just a little hand signal, like a demure biddor at an expensive auction, with the hand only extended out of the imaginary window of the auto rickshaw a couple of inches past the wrist or so. (Truly, any more might be hazardous to the driver’s health.)
However dangerous auto rickshaw riding can seem sometimes, I still often have the urge to get in one, point right out the side (there are no windows) and tell the driver, "the other side of the street," because that's one of the grandest adventures available in this city. Though old women and dogs seem to be rather adept at it, I'm still pretty sure it's the most dangerous thing ever. As I've said elsewhere, I usually try to find an Indian blocker and walk downtraffic from him or her (preferrably her, as I feel more confident that I'll be able to keep up). The rule of crossing the street is, never go back. Sprint past swerving auto rickshaws, walk slowly and confidently in front of buses, or stop dead in your tracks in a busy intersection – but don’t step back. (this is what I was told, and it seems to me good advice) the assumption is that no one’s going to actually retreat – this is Bombay, not Chattanooga – so vehicles will swerve to your rear to get around you. You might ask why I don't just go to an intersection and cross with the pedestrian signal at a crosswalk. You might also ask why we have to worry about crime when we have already written down the laws. However, traffic signals remain, the vast majority repeatedly blinking their unnoticed ritual without fail, their faith either an admirable or pitiable thing; having been rendered vestigial structures of some aberrant evolution, they nonetheless soldier on, perhaps as much out of a need for purpose as a desire for usefulness. Much like the appendix. Or the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Water or Power? Power or Water?

India really is a spiritual place. It lets you ponder things that, back home in America, say, you'd never even consider. Like, how many arms is the right number for a god to have? If you paint lanes on the road, and no one uses them, are they really there? And, the one I've mulled over most, what is more desirable: electricity or water? India is kind enough to give you both, one, the other, and neither, all in quick enough succession, and repeatedly enough, that you can test your assumptions. Thank you, India. Currently, water supply has been erradic, and electricity is consistently out from 8:30-10 a.m. and again from 4:30-6 p.m. It's tough to choose. Electricity helps to distract me from the lack of water, but after a while, no matter how much electricity I have, water just seems acutely desirable. And then, sometimes, there's neither, which is kinda hot and dirty...and, obviously, if I had wanted that, I would have just walked out the door.

Which reminds me of the filth of the city. As one walks around, and especially, I think, as one rides, one is assaulted with the utter filth of the city. The sidewalks are obstacle courses of uprooted bricks, the holes they've left, holes that were never filled in the first place, and piles of dusty dirt. I saw a rat run into a sewer hole today. To give you an idea its size, I'll say this: if you took my foot, put padding around it until it assumed the shape of a rat body, then threw a head and a tail on opposite ends, this fake rat you've just created would serve as a nice little hors d'oeuvre for whatever corpulent toddler the rat I saw is planning to eat tonight.

But the filth of the city is really most evident only when one breathes. Each breath is like a game of chicken between your lungs and whatever pollutants you can feel rushing past your lips. It's like that scene in "The Abyss" where they breathe that liquid into their lungs that allows them to use the oxygen in water for respiration. And in each case, the psychology is similar: I don't want to do this, but if I don't, I'm going to die. I've never seen so many people walk around with handkerchiefs over their mouths before (I've never seen anyone walk around with handkerchiefs over their mouth before, actually.)

Oh, a funny thing - doors are not a fully accepted part of Indian transportation culture. Cars, trucks, and taxis have stuck to their guns and managed to retain their rights to doors, but I think it ends there. The train doors never close, as far as I can tell; buses either had their doors ripped off, or are built without them; and auto rickshaws don’t have anything approaching a door, or doorway, or sidewall, for that matter. These are all for good reason …or, at least, for a reason – to accommodate more passengers. Knees, elbows or hands often breach the auto rickshaw/open air divide, and whole bodies hang, comfortably and not, from bus and train doorways.

Not that the vehicles here are necessarily only distinguished from those I'm used to by the things they lack...
Mumbai is also a city of innovation. I, for one, never even realized the entertainment opportunities being wasted in a very common daily activity – backing up. Sure, the buses and trucks that have the piercing “Beeeep. Beeeep. Beeeep.” backup warning signal have irritated me, and I’m sure I’m not the only one. But what kind of creative block kept me from realizing what the Indians have not only realized, but implemented. I’m ashamed to say that I would never have thought to produce what the neighbors’ car here has – not an annoying beeping signal, but rather a catchy little electronic ditty. Every time this little Volkswagon Bugesque vehicle backs up, nearby pedestrians and motorists still receive the same warning, but have a little pleasant artistry injected into their day as well! In fact, today, I was humming along to a catchy tune when I realized it was getting louder and louder, and looked up to see myself a few meters from being run over by a happy singing backing up mini-tanker truck...but, I mean, if you gotta get run over...
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