Thursday, September 28, 2006

Auntie, what are you Doing

I was sitting in the sandbox, playing with Anjali outside her school the other day.  A bunch of “senior” kindergarteners were also playing there.  

Most of the kids were looking at me kinda strange.  I figured it was because I was foreign.  After a while, one candid little boy came over to me and asked point-blank, “Auntie, what are you doing?” It was like he didn’t understand why I would be sitting in the dirt, under the noonday sun, making mudpies and such with my daughter.  I guess maybe his mom isn’t as hands-on.

Soon, he took me into his confidence.  He invited me take a “spear,” saying we could have a nice fight.  I told him I was too busy playing in the dirt, and besides it’s not safe with little ones like Anjali about.  He agreed, and then admitted he was already fighting a boy who was standing nearby, talking with a teacher.  “Are you winning?,” I asked him.  “Yes, ” he said, and as if to prove it he gave the boy in question a nasty knock with his “spear.”   That unleashed an outcry from all the teachers and other children.  “That’s not right, Nikhil, now tell Joseph you are sorry,” the teacher demanded.  Nikhil had actually apologized the minute he saw he was caught, so the apology was uttered before the teacher could finish her sentence.  I guess apology isn’t enough on Indian playgrounds, because the teacher went on to insist that they shake hands and reconfirm that their friendship was in good standing. “Good friends,” she prompted.  “Good friends,” each boy muttered as they hastily shook hands and went back to the business of playing.  

Anjali and I just watched enthralled, but I was feeling guilty because I wasn’t sure that I hadn’t been a catalyst.  

Learning to merge in Indian traffic

I have been driving myself since we sacked our driver in early July.  I am almost three months into my first relationship with a manual transmission.  I mostly only drive within my ‘hood...on roads that are known to people and places that are known (the HOPCOMS guy on 13th Main, or the good people at MK Retail, Indiranagar, Anjali’s school at Kangaroo Kids, or Forum Mall in Koramangala, maybe a 10-KM radius).  

My driving instructor here told me that I must remember only two traffic rules - 1)Might makes right - he who has the biggest vehicle has the right of way, or he with the most expensive vehicle is automatically at fault in any accident, and 2) Hit but don’t hurt - it’s ok to do a little damage to another vehicle, but not to another person or a cow.   

The most harrowing part of my return home is making a U-turn along a very hi-speed, hi-traffic “ring road.”   I try to make use of the Might Makes Right principle (hard to do as i drive a small, 4 year old Mitsubishi Lancer.  Luckily, since no one has respect for lanes, what usually happens is bigger vehicles with pushier drivers form a second lane to my left.  They stick their noses out and gradually stop traffic, and i, like a suckerfish to a humpback, glide alongside - with never any risk to my vehicle.   

In fact, once i had the fortuitous experience that both principles converged when i was attempting that awful u-turn.   Lots of fast-moving traffic was barrelling down the side of the road i wanted to be on, but there were no bigger vehicles to help me maneuver the turn.  Lo and behold, a trio of huge water buffalos decided to cross the road with me.  Traffic on the opposite road stopped, and I made the turn with the buffaloes’ blessing.    

One downside of not having a driver is that i can no longer snap photos when moments such as that one occurs.

Fun at the BSNL office

The manager at BSNL had four phone lines, each one connected to a different phone.  I guess the multi-line phone is not something the Indian telco manufacturers have mastered.  

The manager also had a cell phone he seemed to prefer.

No teleconferencing either.  The manager had two receivers up to each ear, in that precursor to 3-way calling.  You know, i call you on your first line and then on your second line you call the other guy - then you just repeat what i say to the other guy and vice versa to me.

There were maybe 4 computers in the whole office (all of them looking like stuff you’d find in a data graveyard).  The computers were not on any one person’s desk, but kept at tables nearby so they can be used by more than one person.  And lots of papers on most people’s desks.  

And this was the leading provider of voice and data services in the nation.   Howda!  I think that is Kannada for Wow.  

Problems with Internet connection thru BSNL

My husband’s office has been having problem after problem with their wireless network.  They have subscribed to 2Mbps ADSL line thru the biggest telecom player here called BSNL.  After weeks of tweaking and retweaking, the network guy finally decided the problem must be with BSNL.  

If a customer has a problem with BSNL, they can always phone in and report the problem.  However, what customer feels satisfied when all they get is a complaint number.  Due to the complexity of the problem and the many different languages we might encounter, we decided that an in-person visit be arranged.  

Since the network guy is a bit junior and I feared the BSNL people might try to brush him off, I went with him.  I had nothing better to do, and sometimes, just sometimes, being a foreigner helps your cause. People here have a strange kind of respect for foreigners;  and sometimes they become uberhelpful to foreigners at the expense of helping their countrymen - sometimes I’m so tempted to colonize the place.  

It took us awhile to track down the right chap.  And once we did, the guy seemed pretty helpful and we sat there for an hour while he called up various people to have them check the lines and reset passwords.  And, my goodness, if a lineman hasn’t just walked in the door as i type.  I myself only got back here 10 minutes ago.   But we cannot celebrate just yet...

Just about being a mom...

When you meet other parents, do you feel like you did when you were a kid and met your friend’s parents?

I noticed that I feel really immature when I meet other parents.  Like yeah, I’ve met this woman before, she reminds me of my friend Amy’s mom, or some other friend’s mom.  Then I think, god, I don’t want to hang around her because she’s so serious and mature and that will rub off on me and I will prematurely age.

But maybe it’s about time I age.  maybe it’s good to be serious and mature, then i won’t get yelled at by the security guy at the park for trying out the swings.  

Monday, September 25, 2006

You are sooo not my problem...

The happiest people in India are the “beggars by choice.”  Certainly, there are quite a few beggars who really are disabled thru no fault of their own (some beggar rackets will intentionally maim young children to make them more piteous objects for begging), but most people who beg for money at intersections across India are beggars by choice.  And it’s a family business.

There is one such family that works intersections in the Indiranagar section of Bangalore.  Sometimes the patriarch (a man in his mid-sixties) pretends to be blind and walks amongst the cars stopped at the red light, other times he just has a “bum” leg.  There’s a motley assortment of children and young mothers.  Many times a mother will put a bandage on her baby’s head and rub some red liquid into the bandage, to make it appear that the child is ailing and she will use the money to get him or her medical attention.  

But you should see these families when they take their lunch break.  Of course, they are civilized enough to know that a meal is best enjoyed with company and while sitting under the protective shelter of a flowering gulmohar tree, not far from the “office,” er, intersection.  Really, an American might envy them their lunch - cheap, yummy eats under a tree with their dear ones.  

Then there’s the “employed” beggars -  the “buy this candy for my school” types.  i never bought from them in hoboken and i’m not gonna start doing it here.  

I laugh to myself when the beggars overstay their welcome at my car window - draping themselves over my windshield to look in my healthy white face with their piteous eyes, or follow me to stores staring at me as i order some snacks for my friends and family. Why should i be bothered when they choose to make this their livelihood, it is my choice not to support it.   This is a boomtown in boomtimes, and these are able-bodied people.  

I remember the first time i saw a “wheelchair” in traffic here in Bangalore. It’s more like a big tricycle for adults (all three tires are bicycle tires), and the pedals are hand pedals not foot pedals.  That is how some paralegics get around town to go to work, do their errands, visit family, friends, temples and mosques.   Not only is the whole of Bangalore traffic against them getting to their destination, but much of popular opinion is similar to what it was in the States 50 years ago - distrust and downright disgust that such people are making themselves visible to society.  And yet these guys go out every day and do their thing, day after day.  

So that is how i hold my head up and laugh to myself as i ignore these “beggars” and their “plight.”

What caste are the British anyway?

I used to have a driver that liked to point out other white people to me.  “Look, ma’am, Americans” he would say and point to the “Americans.”  

When I first got here, I used to feel that people here stare too much and too long at me, because I am foreign.  Then, I started staring at foreigners, too.  No one stares at foreigners longer than another foreigner.

In India, when you see another white person, you think, is that one of my countrymen, and feel suddenly homesick.  So you stare and look for distinguishing characteristics.  You know, some faces just look European or British but the thing that usually gives people away is the way they walk or carry themselves.  Americans tend to not pay attention to how they carry themselves, and sort of walk with a sprawling energy.   Europeans walk all kinds of different ways, from stiffly to spritely - all you really can tell is that , no, they’re not American.  I have found Americans to be in short supply here, but Britishers and other Europeans are coming out of the woodwork.  

So I look at the aforementioned “Americans.”  The man is an older gentleman, wearing shorts that no american man his age would wear. The lady is older with dark roots and bleach blonde hair and a long thin nose. They both walk stiffly.  There’s not enough time for further observation, so I just say, “no, those aren’t Americans.”  My voice might have been tinged with regret at not having sighted other  members of my “specie,” so to speak.

This is apparently unthinkable to my driver.  “Then where are they from?, ”  he asks.

“i dunno. Maybe they’re British?” i offer.  i do not tell him that i am absolutely the worst person to play this game with, as my international exposure is limited to Canada, and a week or two in Britiain and France.   

“Oh, is that a different caste from American?,” he asks sincerely, trying to understand how we can be so different when he apparently feels we look so much alike.  

“Yes. Very different caste, ” I reply.   

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Useful terms :)

i have collected some terms in a few different languages that i would like to share... all spellings are phonetic and not intended to be accurate.

komchor - hindi for slacker... literally work-theif, a person who steals by getting a job somewhere and not doing any real work while there.

shingirry - malayalam for sidekick.  nobody likes to do errands alone, it’s always nice to have a shingirry.  and in india, with a billion people, shingirries are aplenty.

goobal - kannada for fool.  i think googoo is the actual word.  i may have concocted goobal.

undah madree - tamil for “so that’s how” or similar.  

don’t think i am launching an assault on these ancient, venerable languages... for their speakers are launching a similar assault on my not-so-ancient-but-still-venerable-i-feel language..  my driving teacher admonished me not to let up on the clutch using only my smallest “leg-finger!”     “Whah?” i gurgled - i had no clue what he was talking about.   “Leg-finger! Leg-finger! the fingers on your legs!” he insisted.   From that i finally figured out that he was talking about toes.  

Reserve fuel

being out of gas reminded me of something kinda funny.

the most mentally-challenged driver i have had yet was driving baby and me to baby’s dr. appointment one evening.  traffic was its usual ugly self, but in bangalore the air itself is very smoggy and full of all kinds of pollution... trash fires, engines without catalytic converters, cow farts, you name it.   we are waiting at the traffic light (we have already had to sit through two green lights) at a notorious intersection.  Suddenly i heard the car’s voice announce “Your Scorpio is running on reserve fuel. Your Scorpio is running on reserve fuel.”   this was news to me... my goobal (goobal means fool in Kannada?) driver hadn’t mentioned anything.  

Out of gas... Cooking gas

today, there was only enough cooking gas to make that first cup of tea and then kaput.  No more cooking gas.  This is one of the hardest things to adjust to here in india.  the bare necessities of life do not flow freely from the taps in your house.  An electric motor pumps water from the sump to a tank on the roof of the house; cooking gas comes in cylinders, and electricity usually goes out for a few hours a day.  

Cooking gas (LPG - light propane gas) comes in cylinders similar to the ones used in propane gas grills in the US.  However, american propane cylinders come with gauges to indicate how much gas is really there; there are no such gauges on the indian cylinders.  

How do you know that you are really getting what you pay for?, i asked my father-in-law.  “by the weight of it,” he told me...but i have never seen him lift one yet.  my kid sister-in-law insists that based on the pattern of cooking and consumption in the house, the cylinder should last x number of days.  

i think there is some sort of government control on the consumption of cooking gas.  we have accounts with two LPG outlets, and each time we order a cylinder, we cannot order another cylinder from the same outlet for two weeks.  somehow, we have about four gas cylinders sitting about the kitchen and storage areas at one time.  right now all four cylinders are empty.  we are due one cylinder of gas, but we did not call the outlet to remind them them about it, and so will have to wait until monday noontime to get it.

this is the third or fourth time this has happened since we came last september.  each time, tea-starved household members hunt for a scapegoat to slaughter.

why can’t they just put gauges on the darn things?  

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Ahhh, cantcha just *smell* jersey from here?

On one of our first nights here in bangalore, my husband and i were being driven home from the mall when i swore i smelled a skunk.  Strangely, the smell made me homesick.  

I said to my husband, “wow, i didn’t know there were skunks in india.  can’tcha smell it?” and i breathed in deeply, thinking of home.  

My husband whispered to me, “I think what you’re smelling is our man’s [the driver’s] armpits.”

Thursday, July 27, 2006

What I learned today...

i had realized a while back that mother india is a very macho country, indeed. but this morning it was brought home anew.

Leaving my parking space outside the gym, i was pulling our SUV into a U-turn - waved on by the gym’s “watchman.”   Out of nowhere a black Tata Indigo veered around the curve - he would have plowed into me as i was making my U.  I stopped short. He stopped short. The rickshaw wala that had somehow got between us stopped short.  No harm, no foul.  Just frayed nerves.  Our man in the Tata Indigo was very upset with yours truly.  He remained stopped in that position, holding up traffic shaking his hand at me, muttering god-knows-what.  Finally, he finished - esp. with the prompting of the rickwala’s horn.  So we all drove on further.

Tata man was driving slow. So rickshaw man and i passed him.  I saw that as i passed him, he was still waving his hand at me and muttering.  So i waved my hand back and muttered, too - as i thought that was the proper etiquette.  after all, it takes two to almost have an accident, right?  

But i was wrong, this angered tata man even more.  He raced ahead and pulled his vehicle to a stop right in front of mine, blocking me and any other traffic behind me.  He got out of the car and came toward my vehicle. I remembered my husband’s advice and did not roll down the window.  I just stared at him.  He stood outside there lecturing me, rhetorically asking where i learned to drive.  Just for the record, i learned to drive in India (2000 rupees for 10 hours of driving).  

I was a bit shaken.  That guy could have been even nuttier and harmed me or my vehicle.  Finally, lots of buses and lorries were honking at him, so he got back in his car.   I stalked him from behind.  I saw that he had a chick in his vehicle with him, probably his wife.  I think what i had done to him was too much for his ego to take and he cracked.

he must really have a small peepee, dontcha think?  

moral of the story:  don’t do that again.  the man in question may have a small peepee and a big woman in the car.

point to ponder:  are indian chicks impressed when their man yells at another woman?  

Wow, you have two live-in maids!

some of my friends back home think i am living it up here just because i have two live-in maids. Like them, before i came here i thought these maids would be like the ones that worked for Daddy Warbucks or the White House - literate, English-speaking, possessing common sense (like don’t mix whites and colors), and automatically knowing what to do and when to do it.  

i’ve been here 10 months now and gone thru 4 maids and 3 drivers. I can tell you what they are not like.  They are not the sharpest knife in the drawer, they usually have had a lot of tragic crap happen to them in their lifetimes (orphaned or husband walked out on them or parents just didn’t give a sh*t); they may steal anything from personal care products(creams, makeup, hair clips) to milk and sugar.  They may know little English, and less personal hygiene.  These people usually come from such a level of want that we spoiled members of the developed world can only imagine.  

That’s the worst of them that you will find.  Now, let me illustrate the best that you will find.  They will attach themselves to you so that you really feel they are part of your family.  They will call you elder brother or sister and be a more devoted younger sister or brother than maybe even your own.  When your cell phone rings, they will run and get it for you before you miss the call.  They will cry when they hear that your baby is sick with a terrible virus, and spend a sleepless night with you nursing the baby back to health.  They will learn English from you and teach you a little of their own tongue.  They will bring you back special festival food from home, and invite you to their family weddings and christenings.  

Of course, the best are extremely hard to find and keep.  Especially as progress marches double-time thru the subcontinent.  

Bummer of a Tamil class

Date: Saturday, July 15, 2006 11:02
Topic: bummer of a tamil class

i finally reconnoitered with my tamil teacher after a long hiatus.  Tamil is a language spoken in the state of Tamil Nadu and much of south India.  I decided to learn tamil because my maids speak tamil and i want to be able to directly converse with them.  Also, it is very similar to Malayam (the language spoken in the state of Kerala, which is where my husband’s family is from.)

Sadly, one of her aunties passed away that very morning.  I asked why she was sitting there with me when her thoughts are probably in Kancheepuram (where her auntie lived).  She told me it would take too long to get there and come back, and she didn’t want to miss work since she just started a new job.  Instead, she explained to me all the rituals and customs surrounding death in Tamil Nadu.  

The eldest son or child is the primary person responsible for the deceased’s funeral arrangements.  They perform all the pujas (prayers), wash the body, and light the funeral pyre.  The family cannot partake in any celebrations for one year after the date of death (no weddings, no festivals).  During that one year, the family is supposed to offer prasad (food offering to the gods) not to the gods, but to the dead person’s soul, and the prasad should first be fed to crows before being offered to anyone else.  It is believed that crows carry the souls of the dead to the next life — I think she was saying that you want to be good to crows because they will be part of the team reassigning your dearly departed’s soul.  


Drivers say the darnedest things

i was headed to yet another stupid errand, when my driver says to me...“ma’aam, see that lady?”

I looked at the lady he indicated.  She was a solid-bodied lady, dressed in red sari and blouse; not at all beautiful, but she appeared immaculately groomed, with braided hair, coordinating jewelry, and bindi centered on her forehead.  I was about to ask my driver if he had beer goggles on.  “Yeah, so? what about her?” I asked.

“That’s is not a lady.  She is a man.  They are called ”ombideh.“” He practically giggled.  “They really think they are women, but they have men’s bodies.... seeing them is supposed to be the good luck.  If the first thing you see in the morning is one of these ”ladies,“ it is considered the good luck.  Also, cows and dead bodies.”

India has taught me the value of a dollar

it is largely claimed that if you come to india, she will change you.  she certainly has changed me.  I now know the true value of a dollar.

A dollar (as of this push) is worth 46 rupees.  That is no small change.  46 rupees can buy a full meal for you and a friend at a pretty nice restaurant (Friendly’s class), 4 liters of Aquafina, cheap seats at a matinee, or you can get your eyebrows threaded (the ancient counterpart to waxing).

The area where i think most americans would enjoy the cost-savings is in the medicinal area - i pay just 400 rupees ($9) for my monthly supply of three allergy and asthma medications, 150 rupees to see a generalist and 250 rupees for a specialist. There is no insurer picking up any part of the tab, this is all billed to and paid by me, the consumer.  the biggest bargain is my husband’s epilepsy medication - it costs $1/pill without insurance, here it is a little over a dollar (49 rupees) for 10 pills!  Next Tuesday I have an appt. for a slew of routine annual medical checks – 1150 rupees ($24).  

Our daughter was the main reason my husband and I decided to move to bangalore.  Over here, I am able to be anjali’s primary caretaker all 24 hours of the day, assisted by two live-in maids.  When I want to go for work, or any other baby-inhospitable errand, I can leave her at home with two maids, and they mutually adore each other.  I pay these two ladies the same amount I paid one lady to come once a week.  

Maybe overpopulation is the answer after all.  :)