Thursday, October 29, 2009
Almost every foreign visitor to India complaints about how noisy the cities are.... this includes horns from thousands of vehicles seemingly honking for no obvious reasons, loudspeakers blasting movie songs from weddings, speeches from political gatherings, religious chantings from Hindu temples and Muslim mosques, and conversation of hundreds of thousands of pedestrians shopping from noisy vendors lining every nook and corner of major city streets. Nothing is organized or methodical including the complete lack of parking spaces that forces cars and the ever popular two-wheelers (motor bikes and scooters) to be parked anywhere there is a few inches or feet available. In short, almost every space is crowded, narrow-spaced, and chaotic and somehow hundreds of thousands of people manage to go to work, school, places of worship, and shop amongst the stray cows and dogs-ridden spaces and streets in the city! Taken altogether, the visual stimuli is an overload for almost all humans and animals!
It is most likely impossible for the eye to absorb and for the brain to instantaneously process even half of the stimuli around, and signal the body parts to react accordingly. There is just way too much happening around! Therefore, pedestrians and drivers are relying more on the audio cues and seemed to be desensitized and "deliberately" oblivious to the sights around them. For instance, at least half the cars have their side mirrors flipped in and drive with just the inside mirror, and even this one is sparingly used. Cars just barge in and pedestrians seem to just step into traffic and back away only after hearing a loud horn. Even young children barely wait to "look both sides" before stepping into the crowded streets.
The pattern of driving is very different in the US where horns are barely heard and drivers rely heavily on all the three mirrors while driving. From the first day of driving lessons, the 15 year olds are told by the instructors to adjust the mirrors first to get a clear, unhindered view of the street. Only after the the mirror is correctly adjusted and the seat belt is securely fastened is the ignition even turned on. Both of these Scriptural ordinances in the US, are given very low priority, or in the case of the seat belt, is almost non-existent in India. Traffic conditions are so different in both these countries that driving patterns have to be different to adjust accordingly.
In the US, most of the traffic consists of cars, a few buses and motorcycles, very few pedestrians, and no animals. Every driver is expected to drive within the clearly marked lanes, and constantly checks on the mirrors to merge in and out of different lanes. Usually there are no parked vehicles blocking lanes or even briefly interrupting the normal flow of traffic. In India, most of the traffic consists of motorbikes and scooters that squeeze into any available narrow space between the cars, trucks, and buses, with thousands of pedestrians on foot and a few stray cows and dogs trying to safely cross the streets. Traffic also includes vendors pushing heavy carts loaded with housewares, and bicycles and autorickshaws overloaded with people and or anything from hardware items to furniture, all of which interrupts the normal flow of traffic. Under these conditions, traffic is slow, disorganized and chaotic, and even when there are marked lanes, it seems to be just decorative! And, because there is so much visual stimuli, drivers and pedestrians have become desensitized to the sights around them and have come to rely upon audio cues. This is why traffic is so noisy in India, and so annoying to foreigners!
The animals, seems to have evolved one more step in this chaos.... they have become desensitized to the sights and sounds around them and seem to be relying on touch! The cows because of their size seems to be doing fine, with the traffic avoiding them at all cost and dangerously swerving to miss them.... but for the dogs this has very tragic consequences! Although not many of them die under the wheels, many of them are hurt badly and end up having a permanent limp that makes their survival much harder on the chaotic streets!
Tuesday, May 5, 2009
Remember, everything in the Indian culture functions through relationships (I have none to write home about of course) .... and somewhat haphazardly too..... I mean, what if you land there and the guy's office is packed with people? Well, that does not seems to matter much as I recently found out ...... A couple of days ago, when I was briefly visiting my mother, her housekeeper introduced her cousin, a 26-year old young man who had been unemployed the last three years.... he has a BA in Engineering (intrumentation to be specific). Since he is fatherless and the only son, he has a huge responsibility to support his widowed mother and two high 20-something sisters (ready to be married, but can't afford to). After listening to his heartbreaking story, my Mother spurred into action..... she dragged him and me to a very influential man in town who owns several businesses and wealthy enough to own several homes worldwide.... (by the way, most of the job placements among the poor and "uninfluential" also happens because you are related to the cousin of your neighbor's mother-in-law). I hesitantly asked if she had called him for an appointment or at least asked him if it was okay for us to drop by (fully realizing that she hadn't and hoping to remind her of that) to which she said that it was not needed..... yes, she had seen him a couple of times before to do some money exchanges, and yes, he will of course see her ......... She picked up the phone, called for a taxi to pick us up right away and off we went.....
When we got off the elevator and stepped out, we were ushered in by a couple of security guards, secretaries, and a few others just hanging around outside the big boss's air-conditioned office enjoying some relief from the sweltering heat .... A few more steps , and we were inside the office .... grateful recipients of the cold draft blowing from several units.
Even as I enjoyed the blast of cold air, I wondered why nobody had bothered to ask us any questions like "Who are you?" or "Do you have an appointment?" Hmmmm...... and as I pondered this, the big boss nodded at us from behind his impressively large table and gestured graciously for us to join him ...... well, there was a slight problem.... there were already four other men sitting across from him at the desk with a large open map that had blotches of different colors, and from the loud discussions and note-taking, I brilliantly speculated that they were in a pretty serious meeting! I stood awkwardly hesitating not sure what to do..... Mother pushed me from the back into an empty seat at the desk and I was too shocked with the scenario before me to say even a "Good morning". Mother kindly pointed that out to me..... but it was too late..... by now the gentlemen had resumed their discussion again ..... and we were now the reluctant audience seated with them at the desk!
I tried to ignore the contents of their discussion and almost felt guilty for eavesdropping.... but had no option other than to stare at the map and the big boss alternately.... so I don't look like I am ignoring his presence (which is a huge offense here). In a few minutes tea was served for all and again I wondered if this was just awkward for me.... and then suddenly one of the eight phones facing Mother rang, and the Boss twirled in his chair and effortlessly had a brief conversation over the phone, and since he was facing Mother, he began to make small talk to her..... she introduced me, and for a moment I had his full attention..... he politely enquired about me and my family, and then just as suddenly pointed something on the map and seamlessly continued the discussion with them! After this happened about three times - switching between the map discussion, and friendly conversation with us, the men at the table became a bit restless and one began to press the big boss for some cash.... Awkward! Isn't this supposed to be a private conversation??? Well, they had no choice of course, and a full ten-minute of persuasions later the big boss got up and the man got up to follow him, convinced that either his sob story or his other truly compelling reasons had worked..... but the big boss gestured for Mother and me to follow him ..... again I was slow, mesmerized by the "happenings" and Mother had to nudge me out of the chair that I had been praying to disappear into.... and whispered rather loudly "He's calling for us....GO" and she invited the young man who had come with us and who had been virtually invisible so far to follow us.
Big boss unlocked an adjoining small door, turned on the lights, the air-conditioner and bid us to come in and tell him why we were there very quickly .... Mother introduced the young man, and explained that he needs a job, and described his sad state succinctly. Now he turned his attention to the young man and asked him for his resume..... flipped through the couple of pages impatiently and advised him sternly, "You need to have your father's details here..... you know, you need to honor your parents.... yes, I know that he is no more, but you need to have his name, and a few details about him....." and the young man nodded vehemently agreeing with him of course.... "You also need to enclose here all the copies of your degrees, diplomas, and passport with your photo....... and, tell me specifically the companies and the positions that you are interested in..... I can't be finding out these things for you...... but if you let me know, I can call them up and tell them to give you something....." His phone rang, and he said something about going out to dinner..... got off the phone, and pleasantly explained to us that his friend had just opened up a restaurant facing the ocean, and he was obliged to pay him a visit ..... and stood up politely gesturing us to a nearby door that put us right in front of the elevators..... Mother said that it was a very successful meeting and was sure that the young man will be helped soon..... I pray that she is right!
Thursday, April 30, 2009
I've noticed a very interesting reply from parents to whom you ask conversationally, "So, how old are your kids?" 9 out of 10 of them will reply, "My daughter is now studying......" or "My son is just completing ...... year in College", and never the age! Actually after they tell you what grade their children are studying, it takes a moment for them to process their age... They sought of pause, and recall the year of birth, calculate the years, and then tell you, if you continue to stare at them expectantly! I am inclined to conclude that the typical middle class professionals that I am interacting with, place a very strong emphasis on educating their children - for the well-being of the child, as well as for the respect of the family.......
I notice that a few people in my neighborhood who have their names written outside the front door have all their degrees following their names! So it looks something like this: N. Sundarajan, B.A., M.S., MLA., and a few more typically, that I have never seen before!! Of course all the wedding invitations will list the parents' degrees, as well as the bride and groom's degrees, as well as the conducting Priest or Pastor's degrees!
You have heard that in Asian cultures relationships play a very important role ...... well, let me rephrase that: In the Indian culture, you need relationships to accomplish anything ..... be it opening a Bank account, or applying for permits to start a business. If you do not have a relationship with someone's someone who is related to someone's someone in that particular office, well, you can either wait for eternity for the approval to come forth, or I am warned by well-wishing friends, I have to pay people under the table!! If you know someone's relative or a really close friend who is in a very high position, then God has been very good to you! These are highly qualified officials, and no, you cannot bribe them, and they are extremely professional! The problem is that you can never know enough of them in the different departments and offices that you need to go and get approvals!
On the other hand, if you do know of someone lower down in the food chain who happened to have been one of the 786 guests at your distant relative's mother-in-law's cousin's wedding, you better learn some breathing techniques that will help you gain the virtue of patience, and long suffering...... and do pray!
Rules..... well, most of us don't care for them, but after moving here to India I miss them terribly. For once I want to see a neatly published document that gives an actual process to get something done..... all spelled out neatly in black and white.... no guess work, nothing nebulous.... oh, give me a hundred rules to get to the end, where I can just follow one step after another and get to the end, knowing that it is completed, mail it to the right address that is spelled out clearly on the form, and expect a reply within a month.... yes, I miss rules, regulations, regular processes...... no, nothing is straight forward here....
It is as if, had it been, it would be too simple and easy and of course you alone can handle it all by yourself, and you are not "forced" to have relationships..... I mean, relatioships become optional. But because there are no straight forward anything here, you NEED people to interpret, and most of all people to "help you out". It is as if everything is deliberately designed here to be complicated and blurry so you don't become too independent and self-sufficient. It is as though, people will miss having a relationship with you, and "doing favors" for you, ...... yes, sooner or later because you need people desperately, you expect "favors" from all your relationships.... relatives, friends, and even acquaintances that you barely met a few days ago in your neighbor's mother in law's cousin's wedding, and you become obligated to everybody! You CANNOT function here independent of others' help.
There is no way around this "system"...... you absolutely need people to help you to accomplish even simple things every day.... and people are most obliging! They know how the system works, and they are happy to tell you that nothing works or gets done if you don't know anybody, and yes, they will do everything possible to introduce you to their "connections". For instance, a friend of mine this morning that I have known just the last couple of months here, was discussing with me on how to get the permits that I need for the Lighthouse project to move forward ..... she mentioned with all sincerity a so-and-so this and that from Church, and then had a brilliant idea ..... "Ah", she said, "I know this person in the train that I have travelled with a couple of times who works for that office.... I don't know what she does, but she works in that office, and I can talk to her and find out if you can go through her ....." And this is the way it is...... strangers in the train become "friends" who are willing to help another stranger's "strange friend". ....
I suppose as time goes by and I get to meet more people and get invited to participate as the 787th guest in my neighbor's mother in law's cousin's wedding, I too have to and will be expected, and obligated to help others around me..... not only because I am an exceptionally obliging person :)), but also because I am obligated to do so. After all they helped me by connecting me to all their relatives, friends, and acquaintances when I needed to get things done..... so then it will be my turn to do so. If I refuse and become self-centered, then I must not only expect to lose all my relationships, but also their favors and connections, and consequently I cannot expect to get anything done beyond a certain point. I will be forced to develop patience, and long, long- suffering (mostly suffering)! And that is how the entire fabric of this culture is based on RELATIONSHIPS.
Sunday, April 12, 2009
Right before my eyes was an assortment of baked stuff displayed on chic, squeaky clean shelves filled with freshly baked breads and croissants all stuffed with appetizing meats and vegetables, with tempting names like Tandoori chicken roll, and Ciabato spicy chicken, with just enough red, spicy stuffing squeezed out to provoke the curiosity! And so we indulged, and I was not disappointed..... it was delicious indeed!
As I chowed down the sandwich, barely acknowledging my kind hosts, I gave a quick look around the bakery to see the clientele that frequented this place..... I was particularly curious after seeing the steep prices on the menu card. Most looked like they have been to the cities displayed on the wall, and were here in this place to reminisce a memory, or take a quick break from the stark reality just outside this little European haven. The spic and span bakery was filled with neatly dressed people relaxing in the cool comfort of an air-conditioned room, munching on delicious sandwiches, and feasting the eyes on beautiful cakes surrounded by photos from beautiful cities, while in the background popular tunes from the Titanic, and Macarena wafted in the air ..... with all the senses preoccupied in this cafe..... it was the perfect escape spot from the usual loud sounds and harsh sights of the large metropolis just outside. Yes, I too was grateful for the warm, light-hearted conversation with close friends and as we shared histories from days gone by ..... it was indeed easy to drown out the traffic sounds, forget the 90 some degrees humid temperature, the pollution, the smells outside, and just be mesmerized for a moment here.....
In less than 30 minutes my sandwiches were all gone.... and just so I didn't feel totally like a starving pig that was fed, I did leave a couple of bites of plain bread and convinced myself that I was on a low calorie diet!! And, a moment too soon it was time to say goodbye to this little haven, reluctantly get back to reality.... and just deal!
Thursday, April 9, 2009
She and I were just flicking through the TV channels one evening, and paused a moment on an English movie that was just concluding..... in the final scene, this cute girl throws her arms around this handsome hero and kisses him (just a tad longer than a friendly kiss actually).... Reka turns to me and asks with all sincerity "Why do they kiss on the lips?" Hmmmm...... this is from a woman who has been married for over two decades! Of course, first I wanted to scream "WHAT? After 20 years, you have never kissed, or been kissed like THAT???" You poor thing! And then I realized that her question was indeed genuine, and seeing her eyes looking at mine expectantly, I could not laugh this off either!
Now, since I've never dealt with this question from my kids, I didn't have a prepared, scripted answer in my memory bank.... So I thought I should offer her a more benign explanation and say something like, "Oh, it's just like kissing on the cheek.... some prefer the lips...." or, "Oh, because she's too short to reach his cheeks or forehead.... this was just more conveniently located close to hers ...." and shrug ..... But then wonder if she really believed me ....... or worse, does not buy my explanation and conclude that I didn't respect her enough to tell her the truth! So, I just said nonchalantly "People who love each other kiss on the lips ...." (and realizing that this would automatically presume that she and her husband did not love each other), I added " in some countries...." She nodded understandingly, and I silently prayed...... please God.... no follow-up questions ..... Is this really innocence???
Then there is this incidence yesterday that can only be categorized as ignorance for lack of knowledge.... I opened the fridge and saw my most precious possession inside that entire refrigerator..... the quart of Cream and Fruits ice cream, on the bottom shelf! Crazy scenarios ran through my mind, like someone finishing it and leaving it here to taunt me.... Deeply disturbed, I picked it up and shook it and of course it was all liquid inside..... I hastily opened the freezer to refreeze and rescue what was left of it and there was no room! (Since everything is bought fresh from the local market almost daily, the freezer had been empty except for my most precious possession). The freezer shelves were neatly lined with the unopened plastic milk packages that we receive every morning, and with a small container of home-made yogurt ..... and they were all now rock hard!
I took a deep breath, counted 1-10 slowly and enquired, "Esther, why are the milk packages here? And, why is the ice cream in the fridge?" "Oh, there was no room in the fridge, and I wanted to move all of the milk and the yogurt out together to one place.... so I moved them up, and brought the ice cream down" and beamed at me from the kitchen, quite pleased with her innovative thinking..... It was time to take that slow breath again and count to 10..... "Esther, please come here and see what has happened to the milk and the yogurt....." She felt the packages, but still no shocked reaction as I had wanted!!! So one more slow breath later I ventured, "Esther, this package is going to burst because it is just thin plastic .... and should NEVER be put in the freezer.... and the ice cream, (shaking the quart for some drama) has melted now, and should NEVER be put in the fridge......EVER!!" She muttered something walking back into the kitchen, as I hastily switched the articles around..... and lo and behold, this morning the fridge shelves are dripping with milk from the torn packages, and Esther..... well, she's on vacation from Good Friday early morning to Easter and will return home next week!!
Wednesday, April 1, 2009
Just as I was stepping out of the third store with nothing in my hands, I heard loud firecrackers and the usual drums and whistles, signaling a funeral procession of course.... I felt nervous and decided to stay right at the entry door of the store that offered a bit of refuge until the group passed me. Since the store was a few feet off the street and higher, I had rather a good view and this procession was different from the usual group that carried the diseased in an organic mat laden with hundreds of flowers (usually marigold) with four men carrying the mat by the poles sticking out on corners... this procession had an ambulance (about a third of the size of the US ambulances) laden with flower garlands and the trunk of the vehicle was open with the poles sticking out, and a man was sitting crouched with the body..... may be a relative? Because the bodies are burnt, and not buried, there are no fancy boxes .... but the whole mat is probably laid on the funeral pyre... and since the mat is made with natural fibers like matted coconut leaves, and the poles seems to be thin bamboo, it is highly combustible and well, I don't know the details yet, but when I have the misfortune to run into that place, I will keep you posted. Speaking of which, there has to be a public 'burning place' close by, because I hear this racket almost every evening!!
After I gingerly stepped out of the store, within 10 steps I see this young man 30-35 years old, "sleeping" on the ground with his knees folded and right arm under his head.... right there on the mud ground, among the vegetable / fruit carts, with hundreds of pedestrians passing by.... his peach colored shirt was covered with flies, and people did not seem very disturbed! As I intently stared at him to see if he was breathing, Esther informed me that he was drunk and was probably just sleeping it off! Oh, okay, obviously everybody else was aware of this man's alcoholic problems too? He did not look like a bum to me... his shirt and trousers were clean, but he had no sandals on .... but that may have been stolen after he collapsed.... Well, an hour later, on my return, he was still in the same place 'sleeping'.....
The market place is vibrant and much cooler and bearable than the morning trips...... the carts are laden with fresh produce including just-blooming, extremely fragrant jasmine flowers that are expertly strung together in long threads made from banana tree barks and sold usually by women ..... I have made it a habit to buy a couple of feet of these flowers and tuck them in my hair....... I see mostly adults bustling about buying fresh fruits and vegetables on their way home from work, cows and dogs having their dinner by rubbish piles that are just about everywhere... the only drawback is that when the lights are turned on in the tiny stores, I see creepy lizards on every wall..... so I stand outside and tell Esther what to buy within.... some get offended wondering why I refuse to go in, and then I have to let them know that there are lizards, and it makes me uncomfortable.... most smile and nod their heads relieved that it has nothing to do with their store...... because most of these stores are manned by the owners themselves with many of them having no other employees.... so it is all very personal indeed!
Tuesday, March 31, 2009
As a culture, people are warm, hospitable, and very obliging especially if they perceive you to be a bit more economically well off, and influential than they are.... I am noticing that people are not respected for WHO they are, but rather for WHAT they are. The family that you come from, and your current job position are crucial to how people treat you, and how much power you have in terms of being able to get things done, complain to someone if you are not happy with the service, and even have access to certain stores, restaurants and other people! Therefore, the poor have absolutely NO POWER.... period! They are invisible to the bustling crowd around them and seldom do people pause to drop a coin to a beggar, or to someone sitting there with no legs.... yes, it is desensitizing if you see the poor every day, and for most people walking past these people, life is a struggle too! The other day there were a couple of scrawny, cows on the street driven by a man with a stick and just as I was feeling sorry for the starving cows, I realized that the man himself was so thin and mal-nourished and so were most of the people around him. So poverty is everywhere and for most people (at the bottom strata of society), life is a daily struggle.... but despite that, they do reach out a helping hand to others.... I see the poor helping the poor much more frequently than the rich helping the poor.
"Prosperity" is seen here and there ..... dots of beautiful glass and steel buildings that have been put up by some foreign company right in the middle of tiny huts and naked, half-starved children. Yes, if you keep your sights high, you will miss out on the reality in the shadow of these buildings.... and I think that for most people keeping their eyes on the beautiful buildings gives pride in how far India has come, and hope for the future. Some of the new malls are quite spectacular.... no, you cannot compare the US malls, but for India, these are great! And this is where I see young women with jeans and T-shirts rather than traditional clothes and shopping for the foreign cosmetics and gadgets.... then again we have to keep in mind that these shoppers arrive in chauffeur-driven cars, and not exactly pedestrian traffic that has to deal with the sweltering heat and jostling crowds!
India has come a long way in terms of social behaviors too particularly among this mall-strolling influential crowd .... yesterday as I was purchasing my first Revlon lipstick here, I noticed at the counter beautiful six-inch colorful bottles with little spouts begging to be sampled as I usually do with lotions and hand creams..... just to make sure that it did not contain liquid soap, I asked the young men behind the counter what these were..... no one answered for a few minutes, and I had to repeat the question again.... one young man staring intently at the cash machine answered "that is gel condom madam" and blushed..... I too stared at the cash machine and remarked under my breath how advanced India had become, and sighed gratefully that I had not helped myself!
Monday, March 23, 2009
Every place that I go to here, dressed in the local garb, people look at me with questions in their eyes and at least one would venture boldly to ask, "Madam which country are you from?" It is as if I have a sign written over my forehead.... while it is true that I am much taller than the average woman here and even most men, and my skin is a bit lighter than most(just genetics), I still have not figured out why I stand out so obviously..... to convince them that I am from Chennai, so that my prices are not automatically doubled, I read some sign that is posted in the store in the local language Tamil, and that forces them to reluctantly acknowledge that perhaps I am a "local" after all!
The local conversations are loud in the market place, full of hand gestures and facial expressions that are unfamiliar and too far off in my memory lane! I do find it all interesting, but I am still a spectator rather than a participant. Imitation is still uncomfortable and formidable, so I try to be myself which is what signals the "other" to the "locals". Then there is the issue of speaking down to people who serve you.... be it to the server at the restaurant, to the cab driver, or a clerk at the supermarket.... people's tone of voices are demanding, and the language used is the non-respect form to address "you". The attitude and the tone of voice clearly says, "Well, you're here to serve me, now get on with it!" Since it is impossible for me to do that I use the formal "you" to the servicing group here, and say "thank you" and that invokes strange looks......
I notice that in the regular news dead people's faces are shown as if it were the most normal thing to do! A couple of days ago as I was watching the news, there was an item on this woman who had committed suicide at home... and the next moment there she was on the screen just the way she was discovered on her bed with her face exposed for full viewing!! This seems to be the norm, and almost daily one can see such items on the news and squirm if you are not used to seeing dead faces! This may have to do with the aspect of how death is viewed here.... for instance, funerals are a jolly good procession with loud drums, dancing, and fireworks, along the main roads.... one can heardly be tearful in the midst of all this "celebration". I was informed that the dancers and the people firing up the crackers that make loud noices are 'professionals' that are employed by the family, and they really do have a great party that involves a lot of alcohol too.... perhaps if I have to dance daily in front of dead people for a living, I would be drunk too!!