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.