Thursday, April 30, 2009

On Education, Rules, Relationships, and Obligations

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

The Little Haven in Chennai

Today my wonderful friend and her family who had moved to Chennai from the Bay Area took me to a bakery / sandwich place that looked and felt more European than Indian! Stepping into this place after precariously dodging broken down bricks and holes on the side walk, I was greeted by a gust of crisp, cold air that smelt of fresh oven baked bread, and my eyes were naturally drawn to a rotating glass case filled with beautifully decorated cakes that resembled Baskin Robbins' Ice Cream Cakes, begging to be sampled. I was indeed tempted to skip a sensible lunch and just sample a whole, richly creamed chocolate cake! But since my friend is petite and health-conscious, I decided to behave myself and dragged my eyes to browse at the neatly furnished cafe and its contents ..... it had simple round bare wooden tables and modern looking white chairs, and the white walls were covered with simple, framed black and white photos of the Eiffel Tower, Champs Di Elyse, London, and the like. Well, enough of the decor..... now where was that wonderful aroma coming from?

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

Of Illiteracy, Innocence, and Ignorance

I am discovering lately that illiteracy is not only a general absence of knowledge because of the lack of reading skills, but a complete lack of what and how things are beyond your immediate sphere of living! We, who are able to read, and do read, accumulate a very broad spectrum of information - some useful and some useless, but nevertheless, information and knowledge that we take for granted. For instance, I recently met a middle-aged woman Reka (not her real name) that knew to read Tamil (the local language), but refuses to read anything other than religious books.

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

Sights from the market

Yesterday Esther and I went to the market in the evening around 5 just past the intense heat. I had intended to buy a ready-made top, long or short, traditional or untraditional style as long as it fit me.... but, nothing did.... I am a medium in the US, but here I am "Free Size" aka, "Too large for our charts".... I had a similar problem with bangles too.... my hand was too large for the sizes that they have! Women are so petite here and I feel embarrassed of how large I look!

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!