Monday, June 25, 2007

two maids, two minutes

My daughter has a soft spot for cleaning ladies, one and all.  In India, we benefitted from live-in help who did the jadoo-poocha - the sweeping and swabbing -- on a daily basis.  The maids have always been much happier to have their work interrupted by my curious toddler than me.  This mutual admiration of cleaning lady and toddler has continued here in the US. 

A luxury we indulge in around here is to call in a cleaning service every so often.  Each time the Senior Maid comes, she either brings 3 maids with her and they all stay and clean in the space of an hour, or she comes with one maid and surreptitiously leaves to do another house, coming back only when that maid lets her know she has finished the job - which can take up to two and a half hours.

The other week we had a small party to celebrate my husband's attainment of American citizenship.  I called in the cleaning service for the morning of the party.  My daughter loves interacting with the maids, most of whom speak Spanish to her.  After tiring of the maid or being shooed away by the maid, my daughter came back to me.

"Two maids, two minutes!," she proclaimed loudly, holding up 2 fingers of her right hand.  "Two maids, two minutes!" 

Sunday, June 24, 2007

You should Never go Back...

Another superstition that my husband has tried to impart to me over the years is this: it is Very Bad Luck to go back to your house after you have left for work or some other important journey. For example, if you leave the house and walk towards the car, but then remember you
left your cell phone inside, you cannot go back to get it. You have to send someone else to go and get it for you or do without it. Those that go back inside are doomed to very bad luck that day.

In India, you never leave the house alone; instead an assembly of family members and staff members will gather to send you off. Kind of like when Daddy Warbucks would enter and exit his mansion in Little Orphan Annie, but no smart uniforms or even smart people, save for the
family members of course. The maids would stop their work, corral my daughter, and head downstairs to open the driveway gate. My younger sister-in-law would also hang about the front door, overseeing the maids. I was the only one left, not sending off the menfolk (my husband and his dad), but doing my own productive work.

As the days wore on, I began to feel that I was engaging in Very Bad Manners in not attending this Sendoff Assembly. I soon started to linger downstairs in the mornings to half-heartedly join in the celebrations. I realized how helpful such an assembly is and wished I had one back home in the US. "Oops, I forgot my cell phone upstairs," and "I want a thermos of nimbu pani to take with me to the office," or "one more chai," or "get me that cord I need for such and such.."
One dutiful member of the assembly would immediately "do the needful" and fetch the last-minute items for the decamping party.

While you wait for the dispatched to bring back your needed items, you have time to engage in one more smoke or even a chance to abuse one of the cast of Gate Lingerers. There are Gate Lingerers aplenty in such a populous nation - i.e., the labourer who has no TV set of his own to
watch, so instead he observes the comedy and drama of your household for 15 minutes each morning, the paperboy who tries to make up for the day he took off by sneaking in yesterday's paper with today's, there's also the carpet seller, the vegetable seller, the pooja flower lady,
and the cable guy coming to inspect the signal or get payment. Not exactly Amazon, but a world of goods is available to you at your doorstep on a daily basis.

So the Question of Forgetting a Thing and Needing to Go Back is not a question that needs to be asked in India. Someone will be hanging about the gate until you drive out of sight, just in case there is something you forgot.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Bangalore? Modern? huh...

I was surprised when I first came to Bangalore, after all the hype I had heard from Indian friends and acquaintances. To their minds, Bangalore was the most "westernized" or modernized city in all the subcontinent. But as you tour the city's streets and byways, you don't see much modernity. You see that the majority of commuters get to work by foot, cycle, auto, moped, bus, lorry and the minority are in a/c automobiles. Many wear Tommy and Levis to work, but many more like to wear gaudy imitations of the Tommy and Levis fashions - while there, I realized that the more common folk (chai boys) would rather wear something awful just because it looked Western. And when you see the ladies of Bangalore heading to work, in the place of power suits and pencil skirts, you see lots of colorful saris and salwar kameezes.

I guess I thought that "modernized" meant that if I were to be teleported from Times Square to Cunningham Road, that I would see a lot of similarities and would feel at home in either place. That is why I laugh with recognition when a fellow expat, who has been to Bangalore, asks me "what did you think of Bangalore? Did you find it very modern?" I say, "no way!"

But as I read more of Maximum City and of happenings in Delhi, I think that by contrast Bangalore is more modernized. I think it is the mindset of the people of Bangalore that is "modern" or "Western," and that is what their countrymen have recognized. That peculiar Indian clannishness is falling by the wayside in Bangalore, as people come together to kick Western asses out of their call centers and BPOs.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Was yours an arranged marriage?

You wouldn't think that anyone would doubt that my marriage was arranged, but I have been asked that question more than a few times.

I resisted the urge to say, "yeah, I signed up on to look for a tall, fairish, Malayalee Erava boy, US-educated, green card holder... and i found him, and our parents and the stars agreed and here we are now."  And I answered them with a polite "no, we met in college."

Now having spent a couple of years in India, I am better acquainted with the sectarian prejudices that abound there.  I now know that Malayalees are admired for their savvy and ambition - in fact, they are rumored to have had the first presence on the Moon, in the form of a tea stall. They are also considered to be Machiavellian.  I began to think perhaps I had married into the wrong community, but perhaps you need to step on some toes to setup the first lunar tea stall...

Saturday, May 05, 2007

how India changes you

Living in India changed my outlook on a lot of the little things in life...

  1. You start to think of perfection as an affront to God. So many, many things in India are in need of improvement, its buildings, its roads, its social and governmental institutions, its politics, its bureaucracy... the list seems endless. But then you learn that "perfect" things, like the Taj Mahal or an intricately woven Kancheepuram saree, which look perfect to you and me, actually have been designed intentionally to have one tiny flaw. Why? Because only God is capable of creating perfection, dummy. And so it goes... you start to accept that most things associated with the human condition will never be perfect. Suddenly, the thought that you will never have the perfect house, car, spouse, kids, career and so on ceases to terrify you or make you run out for some Prozac; instead, it is utterly and amazingly liberating. That's not to say that you stop trying, it's just that you resent life's and people's imperfections a lot less.
  2. You start subscribing to crazy superstitions. If you've ever hesitated about walking under a ladder or felt cursed when you broke a mirror, you'd better not listen to any of your Indian friends' superstitions. Some superstitions are just silly, some are "based in science," and others are based in religion. I can no longer enjoy orange juice with a bowl of cereal for fear that the citric acid will curdle the milk when they combine in my stomach. Nor can I take a shower right after eating. These are matters of science, I have been told. I try to start important activities on any day but a Tuesday or a Saturday. Friday is not a good day for spending money because it is disrespectful to the goddess of wealth whose day it is (similar to Thor's day). I rarely purchase objects made of metal in any case, so Saturday is not really a problem for me.
  3. Your inner control freak starts smoking pot. The banana salesman and his dog are lying fast asleep on top of all the bananas. You realize that he probably isn't the first and only person to sleep on the produce and other consumables that he sells, and God knows who or what has beshitten all over the things you bring home from your local grocery. Power goes out at the damnedest times. Repairmen are called to fix things, they swear they will be there at a specific date and time and consistently fail to show, and when they do show, they fix one problem but the solution usually creates a different problem. Guests come one hour later than the time you tell them to come, or they just drop in out of the blue without calling first -- because calling first is cold, impersonal, formal (something that caucasians do). But, after some time, this just seems to be the natural order of things. You forget about the better business bureau.
  4. You start analyzing the veracity of directions that passersby give you, taking into account the person's general appearance and comportment. People in India do not like to say no to any question, even if the question is "do you know where the Hotel Atria is?," or "do you sell blue carpets?" Instead, they will make up directions and tell you to come back next week, they'll have some by then. So, in the case of directions, you learn to conduct straw polls and head in the direction that the majority indicates, of course, after taking into account whether they look crazy or just plain stupid. Obviously, you try to ask only police and auto drivers but sometimes they aren't around. My driver once stopped to ask a guy for directions and the crazy bastard just kept asking us for a ride to his village.
  5. You learn to handle unsolicited advice and suggestions with grace. Elders are respected in India and they feel it is their duty to constantly advise the younger generations ways to "adapt, adopt, and improve" as they grow into pukka adults, parents and middle-agers. They will give you ten homeopathic remedies all made with honey to give to your 6-month-old, and every shred of advice that your own elders may be suppressing will undoubtedly pop out of the mouths of passersby, shirttail cousins and sundry aunties and uncles. You realize that it's not just the advice itself that these people are offering, it is their care and concern for your progress.
  6. You learn how to say "how are you" and really mean it. In India, people have greater respect for each other than they do for the clock. They will linger over coffees, lunch hours, tea times to hear how their friends, colleagues and their families are really faring - the gas shortage, the unexpected medical bill, the nephew's motorbike accident, the daughter's first steps. Of course, maybe all this lingering is why they need to work a half-day on Saturday to make up for the missed work.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Godfathers and Astrologers

In India, elders count. Big time.

My father-in-law is The Elder of the family. He is not so much a patriarch, but more of a Godfather. That means if you need help or advice, he feels honorbound to do his best by you. Unless you are a girl nearing marriageable age.

Girls are too much responsibility. If they should (shudder) fail to get married, frustrated parents and aunties will look at all those who have put "thoughts" into her head to find the guilty party.

Take my younger cousin-sisters-in-law. One of them is a successful doctor with a failed engagement and no proposals coming in. This is a big black mark on our house. All the aunties of the family enjoy speculating what went wrong; one swears that it is all the gold the well-meaning parents bought for her wedding day while she was growing up, others say it was a case of the horoscopes not matching, and some others that her years in boarding school made her too independent. She has been happily ensconced in the UK for some time, far from these petty speculations.

I have another cousin-sister-in-law who just finished her bachelor's degree. She is stuck at this decision gate: whether to go on for an MBA or go to work. For any course of action, she needs her parents and her "godfather"'s (my father-in-law's) green light/funding. Her godfather has washed his hands of giving her advice due to her approaching marriageable age.

So the other day this same cousin-sister calls her mom in Kerala to ask her for career advice. Her mom tells her, "let's ask the astrologer."

Thursday, April 26, 2007

"Molae" Exploitation

My husband's younger cousin-sister lived with us while she finished her studies in Bangalore. She is a "molae," which in Malayam means daughter or girl, and anyone of a certain age can call you that. A Molae has a lot of duties, but most of all she must serve the elders in the house. "Go get my wallet from my dresser upstairs." "Run and get my cell phone before the caller hangs up." "Help Chechi with the baby."

I discovered a formula while I was there - the more someone calls you molae, the more work you have to do.

I, also, lived in a state of domestic servitude while growing up. I had to run and fetch eyeglasses and other on-the-spot jobs, in addition to whatever I did for my "allowance" - dishes, vacuuming, gardening, snow shoveling, etc. But I only served two masters, my parents. If I served anyone else, it was out of love and/or respect, like my grandfather.

I feel so badly for all the molaes I have met. Our household molae mostly gets assignments from my father-in-law and husband. Neck and shoulder massages, leg massages, in addition to running for the cell phone when it rings. When my mother-in-law comes (my husband's parents are divorced), all hands are on deck but it's mostly "Molae, this" and "Molae, that" when she wants something...everything from chai to reheating the chai because she was too busy talking to drink it when you first gave it to her.

My empathy prevents me from assigning Molae any work. I would feel like a jerk, remembering the relative independence and fun I had in my college years contrasted with the duties of her college years.

Perhaps that is why she speaks highly of me to her friends. "You have an American chechi (older sister)? What's that like?" She tells me she tells them that she thinks she is lucky she didn't get another indian chechi because then she would really have to work.

the cousin-brother and cousin-sister

When Americans first start moving in pukka desi circles, they will be confused the first time they hear someone say something like..."I am going to Madras for my cousin-brother's wedding." Or, similarly when I was talking of one of my cousins, I was asked to clarify
whether I was talking about my cousin-sister or cousin-brother.

I thought that the sibling modifier was just to indicate to people the cousin's gender. Most languages in India have specific words for specific relationships. I studied Tamil and my mind swirled during one session where my teacher was telling me "ok, your husband's aunt on his father's side is called X. your husband's uncle on the other side is called X. No simple Uncle Steve and Aunt Faye here, but still no ambiguity as to how exactly that person is related to you. My daughter calls her father's father just malayalam it is achachan - achan is father and they contract it to achachan.

So I asked my husband one day why people used the term "cousin- brother" or "cousin-sister." He explained that the sibling modifier is not just an indication of gender, but of the closeness that people feel with that relationship. In western families, the core or nuclear unit is all-important and all others are just secondary. In India, the core is important but each person connected to any given family is promoted a rung. For instance, cousins become brothers and
sisters, second cousins become first cousins, aunts and uncles are secondary parents (my husband calls his mom's younger sister "little mommy,' and his dad's younger brother "little dad", and any and every other person who is older than you is either called "older brother" or "uncle" or "elder sister" or "auntie," depending on the age difference.

When you are in India, you will hear so many people calling someone "Bhai" or "Bhaiya" (Hindi), "Ana" or "Aka" (Tamil).... to entreat the Rickwalla (Autorickshaw driver) not to cheat you, you might say "Meter Down, Bhai" as you get into the Auto.

Friday, April 13, 2007

But that's for celebrities!

I spotted some teeth whitening products the other day which jogged the following memory:

I arranged to have a dental checkup at the well-reputed Manipal Hospital one afternoon. One of the great things about India is the ridiculous population level. Having so many extra people means that doctors administer tests that normally only medical technicians and nurses do in countries like the US.

The dentist has always been my favorite doctor to visit; as a child I was a test subject of the Tufts University Dental School. They provided me with free toothpaste and free seals on my "grown up" teeth. Coupled with the efforts of my orthondontist, my teeth could not help but be an object of admiration to the dental set. Dentists could only half-heartedly try to upsell me on whitening treatments, seeing that route canals and implants were not in my immediate
future. (Thank God.)

At the end of my checkup at Manipal that day, the doctor did not try to tempt me with any other treatments. I was shocked, and more than a little bit interested to see what the savings would be of getting my teeth whitened in Bangalore vs. like, anywhere in the US. I asked the dentist whether I would be a good candidate for teeth whitening.

The dentist looked at my teeth again and said, "But, why? Your teeth are a natural color, the color teeth are supposed to be. Besides, whitening is only for celebrities and such people. You are not a celebrity, are you?"

Well, if you have to ask, I guess I'm not.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Firangi Baby was a bear, firangi baby had no hair...

It is said that the hair is a crown of sorts. In India, many people shave their heads as an act of humility or sacrifice to God. When I first got to Bangalore, I once complimented a trainer at the gym on his newly shaved head, and he looked back at me in shock. I now know it was because a) Indians usually don't compliment people publicly, as it invites the Evil Eye, and 2) he shaved his head for God and not for compliments.

Many Hindus believe that parents should make that same sacrifice to God on behalf of their children, and so many children have their heads shaved, and all the hair is offered to God. It is the child's first act of prayer, obeisance to the Almighty.

Rather than the usual venue at the temple, our sacrifice was done at a Cartoon Cuts... an ingenious salon that features a small tv set at each styling chair for the tiny patrons. My daughter sat through it quite happily, squealing "Scooby, Scooby DOOO!" The stylist was very good about harvesting each and every hair, and handing it to me in a sealed envelope.

My husband's reason for wanting this done is entirely religious.

My motivation was to prevent twenty years of criticism of the texture and abundance of my daughter's hair.

In India, nearly every one is a mother-in-law and many "aunties" who I do not even know have urged me to get her head shaved, so that it gets replaced by a stronger, thicker thatch of hair. I do not want to hear, over the course of the next twenty years, that her hair is not up to snuff, and that I should have had her head shaved when she was younger. That is what assuaged the pain as I watched my baby's head become denuded.

I don't think she'll ever be able to watch Scooby-Doo again without apprehension.