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.
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