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 shaadi.com 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 that...in 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.

Those meddling Americans!

As I was preparing to leave Bangalore, one night at the dinner table conversation turned to my notoriously naughty toddler. Pampered by all and sundry in Bangalore, my daughter would laugh in the face of disciplining adults. In Bangalore, people used to say "That's all right" and laugh when my daughter would try to push them, bite them, slap them; all the anti-social behaviors. Their philosophy is that the child is "king" until they can be reasoned with (around 5 or 6), until a Magna Carta of sorts will reign in the child's whims.

"What will you do if she misbehaves in public over there, like she does here? You cannot hit her in public, you know. People will call the police and children's services on you."

That is the fear of many, many immigrant parents, as I have learned. They fear/respect the American police because their honor is rarely besmirched, and, because children's services can take away your most precious belongings: your kids. Perhaps there is also a little bit of shame involved when the neighbors notice the police at your doorstep.

"That is what is wrong with the people over there! Nobody minds their own business!," he declared.

Somewhere in the back of my mind, the gong was struck on the Muppet Show... because that is what so many of my Indian friends say of the people back home in India.

what's in a name?

In general, South Indians have a very confusing naming structure. Their names are largely comprised of three or four names, only one of which really describes that particular person. If I were to follow their example, I would have been named Randolph Robert Jill. The first part of the name is usually the caste or village name, followed by the father's first name, and then the individual's first name. And to make things a little crazier, when women get married they take
their husband's first name as their last name.

I was quite ignorant about these matters when we got married nearly fourscore and seven years ago. Had I known then what I know now (head shaking ruefully)... I probably would have kept my original name. It was quite a nice Wasp name that I was born to... with swamp Yankee roots, a couple of esteemed ancestors and a nearby college all sharing the name. I even used to get compliments on my name, "good name" anonymous people on the other end of the phone line would say when I told them my name. Of course, they were probably descendants of swamp Yankees themselves with similar names, entrenched in the history of our region.

My ruefulness is compounded when total strangers (south Indians all) assume wrongly that I am married to my father-in-law instead of my husband, because his first name is now my last name.

How did this happen?

limca limca limca

Limca is a beverage that is indigenous to India. The mighty Coca-Cola company could not replicate its taste, so it had to buy the formula and Limca is now manufactured with the Coca-Cola company seal underneath its logo. "..'imca," was one of my daughter's first ten words and probably the first logo she recognized.

It is just the thing to keep your tongue from bursting into flames after a particularly spicy meal. Its ancestor is "nimbu pani" - which means lemon water, but that nimbu is really sort of a lemon and lime put together in one fruit. Nimbu pani, like its foreign counterparts, Lemonade and Mint Julep, really cools you off on a 100+ degree day.

When I found Limca at my local Indian grocery the other day, I was overjoyed and bought 3 bottles. The Indian price printed on the glass bottle is 9 rupees; the American price not found on the bottle is $1.59.

I never got to keep a glass bottle while I was in India. In fact, I only drank from a glass bottle twice, once at the pet store which rewarded my commerce by having a 70-lb, 12-year-old carry a 25 lb bag of imported kitty litter to my car, and another time outside a "bakery," (bakeries are actually part lunch counter, part bakery).

In India, there is an honor code glass bottle consumers: All glass bottles will be returned to the vendor from whom you purchased it, once you've drunk the entire thing whilst standing outside his place of enterprise.

I was oblivious to this code and wondered why one shady character kept following me around while I enjoyed my drink from said glass bottle.

Ohhh... Limca. Why have the people in Atlanta not caught on to the magic of Limca?? Because it will kill Sprite, won't it?

Saturday, March 31, 2007

christians of the first order

Meeting Indian christians can be quite entertaining, depending on their exposure to "cosmo" ideas. I have met many who I would lump in as the unexposed - kinda like suburban kids. They have not met many foreigners, they work mostly for the various state and city governments and foreigners normally never tread into those offices.

When christians of this stripe meet me they are at once honored to meet a bona fide christian (Westerners Christians are considered more authentic) and horrified to learn that I married a hindu and live amongst them, eating "hindu food."

Some of the christian missions here have done a very good job indoctrinating many christians with that old-time feeling of supremacy to other religions, complete with the old-school Protestant derision of "Papists."

After living amongst Hindus as long as I have I can say that there are some lifestyle areas where Christianity does beat Hinduism. (although most Hindus maintain that Hinduism is less than a religion and more than a lifestyle). Most deplored by the Hindus is the Christian concession to eat nearly anything that moves. Hindus have caught that distrust of pork shared by the Jews and Muslims, all of them will refrain from eating beef, so that just leaves mutton and chicken for the non-veg Hindu.

A Christian in Bangalore pointedly asked me how I liked "hindu food."

the 2 rupee Iron Lady

Another luxury I miss is the 2 rupee per shirt iron lady or "ishtri aka." This aka will do the rounds of the neighborhood, coming door-to-door asking for clothes to be ironed or "tunni."

One thing I used to enjoy was answering my own door from time to time. Most households have a maid who will filter all the traffic that comes to the door on a daily basis - the washing machine repairman, the unsavory looking guy soliciting odd jobs, etc. When unsuspecting visitors see me answering the door, their expression is one of shock, confusion, and apprehension. Perhaps their first thought is how rich are these people, to have a white maid answering the door, and then their second thought is that i probably do not know a word of any of the local languages, so what to do now.

Ishtri aka comes to the door and asks hesitantly in Tami and Hindi for clothes. She will then go to her cart under a shady tree and iron the neighborhood's tunni the entire day, delivering them late in the afternoon. There are no official records kept by either party in the transaction - you just make sure to double-count your number of shirts and pants, and she will do likewise. Multiply that number by 2 and that is the amount she will ask for in the afternoon. Her iron
looks like something that existed perhaps even before the British came... it really is made of iron and subdues wrinkles better than anything you could pick up at macy's.

She recently raised her rates to 2.50 rupees per shirt, to keep up with the rising tide of the indian economy.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

comparative culture of gas stations

For the first time in a very long time, I filled up my own tank of gas and again felt like a foreigner. I didn't know which side of the car the gas goes into and had to switch pumps. Then the debit card transaction nearly got the better of me. I fumbled with the keys - trying to figure out which keys to hit for Enter OK Yes at each point. I was filled with relief when I heard the fuel flowing thru the hose. That relief was short-lived as I was soon filled with the horrible sensation that I had not set a dollar limit to the transaction, and didn't know how to... I looked around frantically and spied another consumer conscientiously pumping the nozzle to get their transaction to just the right dollar amount, and my American instincts were reactivated. The whole thing was accomplished without interacting with any other human beings.

My daughter did not enjoy the refueling trip as much as she was wont to do in Bangalore.

When I pulled into the "petrol bunk" in Bangalore, a team of 5 guys would wave me to the appropriate pump. My daughter would wave back, excitedly. All 5 would wait there; their leader would greet me at the driver's side window and get my order - ex, full tank on credit card or 1000 rupees in cash, etc. He would bark my order to his crew, and tell me to unlock the gas cap door.

The leader would disappear to get the bill, one guy would do the hose formalities, another guy would get my attention yelling - "Zero, Madam, you see 0.00" to prove to me that I would indeed pay for only the gas that I got. And one guy would keep his post by the rear left window making funny faces to my toddler's delight. And at the end of each transaction, the leader would ask, "you are basically from which place, madam?"

Bangalore and your petrol bunk crews, we miss you.

Friday, March 16, 2007

desi beauty ideals

This post should have published on 2/15/2007, but it didn't.

Our office boy is getting married and he's hardly 20 years of age. I wonder if his family thinks that "office boy" is a career high. He is the junior office boy at that, and only recently got his license to drive a two-wheeler.

The office is collectively astonished at the news of his engagement. "It's like child marriage," they say. There was much speculation about his intended, how old she would be, and whether she might be his niece (it is a custom among some Tamilian communities that a brother will marry his older sister's daughters.). My own suspicion is that the two of them must have been caught in some romantic act by the girl's family - the good old-fashioned shotgun wedding.

The junior office boy had only announced that morning that in the afternoon he would leave early for his engagement. Our senior office boy, aka Man Friday, was the only one who could attend the engagement. The next day, we asked Man Friday about the bride-to-be, he only said, "She's black!"

Since her intended is also quite dark, I think that should be OK. The Indian or at least South Indian ideal of beauty is fair, a little fat and with long, thick dark hair.

Since I am fair and a little fat, I have enjoyed being amongst the ideal body types... just one more thing I will miss about India.

Driving in Tamil Nadu

This post should have published 2/21/07 but it didn't. :(

Family matters, especially in India. Despite my obvious culpability in losing our passports, my father-in-law and an "uncle" dutifully drove me to the US Consolate in Madras the very next morning.

One thing I immediately liked about Tamil Nadu was that all the street signs were in English as well as the local language, Tamil. In Karnataka, most of the signs are in Kannada which makes it difficult to navigate for us Kannada illiterates.

The "uncle" warned me that he might have to make a lot of sudden stops to avoid near misses with pedestrians and other drivers. This uncle is Tamilian. He told me, "The cattle in my state are rather well-behaved than in Karnataka, so you won't find them in the middle of the road. But, sad to say, the people are not, they do everything in the road -- dry their grains for cooking, go potty, brush their teeth, shampoo their hair, and sleep."

And as we drove all the way from Hosur to Madras, I saw people doing just that on the side of the road and counted 10 vehicular homicides that this Tamilian uncle prevented just in time.

At the consulate

This post should have published on 2/18/2007, but the technology gods were not friendly.

So, after much handwringing and lectures from all family members and friends who were aware of my enormous gaffe, I finally made it to the US consolate in Madras (Chennai). I don't know what I would do if spies had been chasing me, about to murder me, because you have to get thru the doors. The doors are humongous bulletproof metal plates with electronic locks, kinda like prison, I guess. And the gate keepers are not Marines as I had hoped, but ordinary everyday Tamilians. Much time was lost being understood by the Tamilian guards and, I think, their "urgent" speed is much slower than the American "urgent" speed.

These same Tamilian guards seranaded my daugher with "Anjali, Anjali" - which was a hit Tamil song a few years back, while we stripped ourselves of anything electronic, cosmetic, or otherwise interesting. Even the bubble solution with which I had hoped to keep my daughter occupied had to be kept with the guards.

To my gratification and my father-in-law's horror, there were quite a few other Americans in a similar situation - lost or stolen passports. "People are dying to get this passport and you people can't be bothered to keep track of where you put them!," my father-in-law admonished me and the room thru me. For an Indian to lose their passport is to go thru a lot of emotional and physical pain - unless you have a connection. You have to stay up all night and get in line for the Passport Office before they open, then the "peons" in that office send you on a treasure hunt of bureaucracy unparalleled in the civilized world. Again, I am thankful to be American.

I had brought everything needed except my husband. In order to replace a minor's passport, both parents are required to appear. Normally, I would have gotten the passports within 45 minutes, and been invited to peruse the American Library while I waited. Now, without the hubby, they would wait a day for his permission and have it hand delivered to me in Bangalore on Saturday morning. Even this is cause for envy from my Indian-passport holding circle.

There was a man, a little older than myself, there to replace his stolen passport. The Passport Officer said, "Wow, that's like the 4th passport this month getting stolen in Mysore." I had kinda wondered what this guy would be doing staying in Mysore, which is more of a temple town than a bustling commercial metropolis. My father-in-law had a ready answer - "Staying in Mysore?! Huh, he probably sold it for some charras, since he knows how easy it is to replace."

Stamp Paper Follies

This post should have published on 2/20/07, but the technology gods were not friendly.

In the process of obtaining exit papers for my daughter and me, I have been reintroduced to my friend, the Stamp Paper. I also learned that when a uniformed policeman sits behind the reception desk at the police station, he will not really tell you anything helpful. In my case, I was told by this policeman to get my statement notarized at a local courthouse. When we returned with a notarized statement, he admonished my Man Friday for not knowing that it should have been put on 20 Rupee Stamp Paper. I still don't quite understand the need for different denominations of this Stamp Paper... I have put statements on 40 Rupee and 20 Rupee stamp paper while I have been here, but I still don't know why one statement can cost more than another. I am told that it prevents people from filing false reports, but there is also a black market in false stamp paper!

Also - I was astonished when my Man Friday told me to stay in the car while he went to get my statement notarized, without me or any of my supporting documentation! I was sure he would be sent back. I told Man Friday, "Really, are you sure I shouldn't come?" to which he replied, "No need, madam, why? Seeing you will only make them ask for more money!" He came back within five minutes with the notary's seal and signature.

When we returned to the police station with our notarized 20 rupee stamp paper statement, a plain-clothes clerk was seated behind the reception desk. He wanted nothing to do with the statement i worked so hard to get for him, and instead wanted me to sit down and take dictation. I had to include terms such as "Dear Sir" and "Faithfully Yours," and include where I resided and what I did for a living. It felt like third grade all over again, but I finally got my statement reporting my lost passport.

While I was attending this "letter writing tuitions" with the clerk, my daughter was running amuck all over the police station lobby. When I tried to rein her in and keep her by me at the desk, she would cry and start a tantrum. I was surprised and a little annoyed when all the people in the lobby insisted I let her be and give in to her whims, saying they could not bear to see her unhappy. I have seen this same class of people beat their children in public, for even a small infraction, but my kid they don't want to see have hurt feelings. What a country!

Latest child-rearing advice from my mother-in-law

My mother-in-law and her sister came to see my daughter the other day. When they saw how energetic she was, they gave me some advice on how to handle her without getting tired myself. It seems I should break the law and employ a girl around ten years of age to chase after my daughter all day long, and keep her from putting her fingers in electrical sockets, teasing the cat, playing in the muddy garden, etc. They told me that is what they did when their kids were small, that it is the best solution all-around. No one can keep after a kid like another kid, and small hands are really good for polishing silver and brass.

The streets of our layout have quite a few poor children who are not attending school. Their parents are migrant laborers, construction companies pay by the couple... so husband and wives work together to put up houses and office buildings. Some projects have creches or day care centers where the parents can leave their kids while they work. Starting pay is 2000 rupees a month for a single woman.

I have been to many homes where the maid has been working for the family since she was a little girl. It is a sad fact that the families these girls work for can take better care of them than their own families. They become sort of adopted members of the family, and have all their needs - food, clothes, jewelry, health - satisfied, plus time off to visit their families for weddings and festivals (with cash and gifts for the families in hand). You know, just like your average road-warrior business traveller. :)

In their own families, many girls are seen as liabilities. Why invest in a girl child with things like gold and education, when she will just leave the house when she is 15? And then you will have to pay dowry to the family you marry her off to. A real pain in the ass, these girl children.

I like to torment my younger SIL with plans to marry her off or send her to work in a rich expat family's home. I tell her it was my husband's idea and sometimes she believes me and starts begging, "but I want to continue my studies." I get such a kick out of it, but I suppose she enjoys it less.

Bru Dependency

I have been trying to overcome the dependency on Bru instant coffee that my stint in India cultivated. Bru - sulpa guttee or kummi guttee or kunjum guttee or a little strong - depending on whom I asked to make it.

Maybe the last bit is why I liked it so much. Magically, it seemed, just when I was about to recognize that I needed a cup, one would appear. Of course, half the time it wasn't precisely as I liked it, but being American and remembering that I would otherwise have to make it myself, I stilly gladly drank it. My husband and his family members would alternately cajole and/or abuse the poor wench (depending on how many others she had screwed up recently) and have her make another cup. When I would point out the wasted materials and potentially hurt feelings of said wench, my husband would say "well, then what the hell are we paying them for? If you feel so bad for them, you drink it or go make me another one yourself."

Sigh. Those were the days.

I have found that being back "home" in America, I cannot recapture my Indian home. I cannot replicate the exact flavor of my kunjum guttee cup, though I have purchased the "export grade" Bru. Is it the curse of homogenization or pasteurization? Or is it because my American cows are fed a controlled diet and not whatever trash is available along the pathways of Bangalore?

Monday, March 12, 2007

Children bounce back

My daughter, who will turn 2 next week, seems to be adjusting well to being back in America.

She does not seem to miss the constant presence of so many admiring adults. She has quickly learned to look for the everyday toddler seductions. The grocery cart that looks like a racecar or pickup truck or airplane... those must be our chosen conveyance or I will have no peace. Even if she is in her luxury stroller, she wants the mall rental strollers with the steering wheel.

Helium balloons seem to be everywhere and my daughter does not understand that they are part of decorations and not for the taking. The balloons I do buy her are not as sweet as the ones still on display.

We walk by other houses in the neighborhood and a swingset will be in plain view in the back yard... my daughter thinks it is a public playground and tries to head right over to it.

And all adults remain "Uncle" and "Auntie" to her. "bye Uncle" to the handyman, "please Auntie" when she wants to share her friend's snack.

What language are you speaking?

I have long cursed my susceptibility to accents. I have been exposed and succumbed to the Boston accent (my first accent), southern accent, living in the New York area revived my Boston accent and then in Canada I started sounding like my mom (a Canadian.)

Spending nearly 2 years in India, I could not avoid picking up the lilt of the Indian accent... it makes it easier to be understood when you speak in the same rhythm as your audience. My husband used to tease me whenever I sounded very Indian, saying that I take accent reduction classes at a call centre training school before I returned to the US.

When I was at the Madras Consulate, the consular officer asked me what kind of accent I had - that it certainly did not sound like it originated from my birthplace. To my horror, he said I sounded European.

The other day my husband and I were chatting while we were in the checkout line. At a pause in our conversation, the clerk says to me, "Wow, what language is that you're speaking?"

There's something else on these eggs...

I opened a case of American eggs for the first time in a long time the other day. I was shocked. The eggs were so big, at least one and a half times the size of Indian eggs. And instead of the chicken poop that I was accustomed to, these eggs were stamped with the company's logo and the recommended USE BY date! I marvelled at my countrymen's genius to not only wash the eggs, but then to stamp them with the use by date without breaking the shell...

In Bangalore, I used to pay 2 rupees per egg - 24 for a dozen...about 50 cents. And clumsy American me used to break at least a third of the dozen before getting them home. The eggs are just stacked gently inside a normal "plastic cover" - or grocery bag. I always forgot that fact as I put them in the car.

Re-Pats and Manholes

I have been back in the US almost a week and I feel like a foreigner in my own country. The appliances work so fast. I can't keep up with the toaster.

Whenever I shut off the TV, my daughter says "Current GONE!"   We will keep that little effect going for a while.

In our brand spanking new development, there are signs that say "Raised Manholes."  I kept looking for them and couldn't see them.  Then the other day I noticed them - they are raised but they have paved a slope around these manholes so that when you drive over them, you won't feel a jolt.  WOW!   To paraphrase Crocodile Dundee - that's not a raised manhole, i'll show you a raised manhole!" 

I miss the open manholes of Bangalore.  I used to have to give a wide berth to a 4x4x4 foot gaping hole in the sidewalk at the intersection of 12th Main and 100 Foot Road in Indiranagar.  When I first arrived, I was sure they would fill it in any day now...18 months later it is still reliably wide open.

In one neighborhood of Bangalore, where there is a home for blind people, "miscreants" were removing manhole covers - you can just imagine the twisted Tom N Jerry mindset of said "miscreants."

My Mother-in-Law - Model Citizen

My mother-in-law was asking me about my husband's citizenship status the other day.  I told her that he was in the last stage of the process to become a citizen. She seemed very excited at the news.  "You know why I am asking you, molu?", she said. "Because once he gets his citizenship, I want him to make me a US citizen, too.  It has long been a dream of mine to be an American citizen."

My nationalist heartstrings pulled, I asked her why that was... what slice of Americana did she savor the most - the Pilgrims, the Innovators, the Bill of Rights, the largely uncorrupt police practices, the egalitarian way most of us treat each other ...

I was torn from my reverie when she confided, "Jillu, you know if I had a US passport, I could just take a flight to Dubai, Doha, London, Paris, ANY PLACE without worrying about getting a VISA."

Friday, February 16, 2007

liars in the courthouse

Just in time for my departure from India, I managed to lose my
daughter's passport and my own passport. Frantic relatives and
friends "did the needful" and checked the state department web site
to see what had to be done. Of course, one of the first things to be
done is to alert the authorities. Our Man Friday and I went to the
police station to give them the letter where I report the details of
our passports and how they went missing. The police officer told us
to we needed to get the statement notarized at a nearby courthouse.

I hadn't heard the word courthouse...only a word that sounded
something like "vyhal." I asked Man Friday what the officer told
him, and he said we have to go the courthouse, which is a place full
of "liars." I did a double-take when I heard him say that, for Man
Friday is very respectful of people who are highly educated. Then I
realized that his accent had turned the word "lawyers" into "liars."

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

office mosquitoes

My sister-in-law often uses a figure of speech about "father-in-law's property." As in, "I walked in there and just sat down like it was my father-in-law's property." She does not yet have a father-in-law so I deduced it to mean something like the carte blanche that apparently Indian daughters-in-law enjoy. I used to wonder why the whole office seemed excited when I came by, smiling and trying to make me comfortable. I thought it was just Indian hospitality.

Anyway, I now resemble that phrase for I am sitting in my father-in- law' and husband's office at an empty desk and freely using the internet and drinking the office coffee.

Apparently, mosquitoes also keep office hours and do not know who I am because I am now sporting 4 or 5 new bites. The office boy has come and sprayed some very nice smelling HIT mosquito repellent, at least someone has told them who they are messing with!

Silence is not always acceptance

I have been rendered silent for a few days following an unexpected power surge or "high voltage" as they say here. I noticed that the ceiling fans started to whirr too fast for their setting, but stupid American me just shrugged her shoulders and paid it no heed. Proper
Indians would have known it for what it was and prudently run around their homes, unplugging and switching off everything in sight.

The surge took out our microwave, our radio, our ADSL router, our Airport router, possibly our cinema display, and a gazillion surge protectors that i had daisy chained in our "computing area." How is it that the stupid "all-out" burner - an electrical diffuser that diffuses a harmless, scentless vapor that "confuses" mosquitoes - that costs approximately $1.50 can stand up to "high voltage" better than $100 or even $700 sophisticated equipment?

It never fails, whenever my father-in-law leaves the country, this house turns on its occupants. It is as though the shit waits respectfully for my father-in-law to get on the plane before it hits
the fan. Following his departure, we have had 2 days' consecutive without power, a rash of "delayed reaction" rioting for Saddam's fate, retaliation rioting, maids quitting, revelation about cat's former sexuality, high voltage and now possibly more riots following a court decision that forces the state to share a goddamn natural resource with its countrymen in neighboring states.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Puja Flowers

Every morning the puja flower lady delivers small flower garlands or "poomalas" to every Hindu home. Religion for Hindus is truly a DIY - do-it-yourself industry. There are no sermons at Hindu temples, which might appeal to many a Sunday Schooler. No sermons, just prayers and incantations to whatever facet of the Deity you are concerned with. The many gods and goddesses are similar to patron saints in the Catholic tradition - each one has an office. You can pray to St. Jude or to Shiva the Destroyer if you need a quick favor.

Shiva is reputed to be quick to like people, easy to please but very dangerous to piss off. My mother-in-law is convinced that Shiva is protecting my husband because when he was 2 years old a cobra could have gone for him but didn't - cobras belong to Shiva's dominion. And she says that our (my husband and me) horoscopes reveal that our union is similar to the Shiva-Parvathi union, which she says is the ideal relationship. Parvathi set herself on fire (committing suicide) when Shiva accused her of infidelity, and Shiva also beheaded the son she created on her own (since she is the mother goddess she don't need no man). We have yet to experience such bliss in our union as yet.

Back to the puja flowers. At the market one day I saw where all the puja garlands came from. There was a lady with a high table - like a judge's bench - with heaps and heaps of fresh flowers piled on top. Fresh jasmine and rose and honeysuckle. I was smitten by the site of so many pretty fresh flowers and I wanted to just thrust my nose into the piles and breathe deep of their perfumes. I made a move to do just that when i felt my maid pulling me back, and I saw the flower lady rushing to protect her flowers with her arms.

I had forgotten that mere mortals are not supposed to smell the flowers offered to God until God has had a chance to sniff them first. These people were protecting the flower lady's inventory because if I had succeeded, she would not be able to sell the flowers that I had sniffed. They would be deemed unusable for offering to God.

Are jellicle cats transgendered?

I adopted my cat in 1999 from a PetSmart in Germantown, Maryland. He was male then, but today at the CUPA Animal Care Clinic I was told he was female!

We have a very sweet "Man Friday" that has been with our family for 10 or 15 years. (Interesting side story - my father-in-law discovered this guy when he was 12 and peddling a bicycle delivering pickles. My father-in-law decided to pay for this guy's education provided he do odd jobs afterschool, but he also had to pay the guy's father just to let him go to school - Dickens would love this place. ) Man Friday now is officially a senior office boy and is very proud to possess a set of business cards, but he is also on call for domestic duties, such as driving me to unfamiliar places.

I asked Man Friday (heretofore to be called Joe) to drive me and my cat to the clinic, since I am spatially challenged, almost debilitatingly so. Unlike most drivers, Joe doesn't like to sit in the car, he likes to join me in my exploits since he is practically family. (My inner snob used to worry that when he accompanied me to places that people might think i was married to HIM - not that he is so undeserving of a girl with my fairness and US passport, but the working poor here are quite spindly and unattractive - not the stuff of gardener fantasies.)

The reason we were at this clinic was to get my cat's favorite Lion Cut - you guessed it, they shave all the fur except for around the neck (mane), the lower legs, and a bit on the tail. He suffers terribly from hairballs and, when his fur gets long, will pointedly puke up yummy globules in my normal haunts - desk chair, staircases, etc.

I warned Joe that he should leave the room, otherwise he will be covered with cat hair. He didn't seem to mind and went on to chat the whole time with the "barber" in Kannada. He was very interested in the whole place and the other patients - unabashedly peeking into the treatments rooms, and laughed when he saw that the animals were getting hot water baths (such an extravagance for a lower life form).

I noticed that while my cat's legs were being shaved, Joe and the barber seemed to be looking at my kitty's crotch and speculating. Joe asks me, "this is a boy cat, madam?" I said, 'yes, it's a boy cat!" "No, ma'am, this is a girl cat." I thought they might be confused because the cat was neutered and so no evidence of maleness was present.

These two were pretty interested in how much I paid for my cat. It was humbling to tell them that I spent between $50 - $75 (INR 3300 - half their monthly pay probably) to adopt the cat and try to convince them that it was CHEAP. They had trouble processing the concept of adopting an animal that someone had given up, and when they saw that my cat's front claws were no longer there I could feel the judgment. I kept telling them that the first family did that to him, it was done before I had him - but maybe they think I made up the first family.

I was worried that their misidentification of my cat as a female might lead to an ugly scene with the razor. I called for the doctor and tried to clarify things, but the doctor checked and agreed with the barber and Joe and showed me the part in question. It was definitely not a protruberance.

So now I am wrestling with my cat's newfound sexuality - or newfound previous sexuality... how will I get him/her back to the US if the US paperwork states that he is male and the Indian paperwork states the she is female? Does this explain the nipples?

One interesting bit is that the vet suggested i pay him 500 rupees for each rabies vaccination my cat had missed since coming to India (which is really 1, but he keeps saying 2) and that he will write it in my cat's vaccination card that he gave those doses at the appropriate times, even though he did not. I don't know... maybe he needs the money for tuitions?

Monday, January 29, 2007

what i will miss about bangalore

  • eggs with the chicken poop still on them... hey, you know it's fresh!
  • stressing out every morning whether i woke up in time to catch the milk man - if i don't give him my tickets, my daughter doesn't get her milk!
  • every few days in the hot hot summer, half of the milk order will have already soured by the time it gets to me.
  • boiling the day's milk every morning, and waiting for the cream to solidify on top so i can remove it and not have clumps of it showing up in my coffee or cereal.
  • the garbage man suddenly going MIA for weeks and trash accumulating in my backyard, providing a feast for rats miles around.
  • the garbage man turning up again after his MIA and demanding extra pay to remove the backlog of trash, or better yet, could i give him a cup of coffee?
  • maids i cannot communicate with who keep yakking like i am their long-lost sister, and how much they love Australians, oops, Americans.
  • needing an interpreter to translate Indian English to American English and vice versa
  • the puja flower lady - really, i will miss her... she's nice, even tho we can't communicate. sometimes she gives my daughter her own poomala (flower garland) to desecrate
  • the maid deciding to boil the cream accumulated from the daily boiling of milk into ghee in the middle of the afternoon, stinking up the entire house and preventing me from assigning any real work
  • turning on the motor every morning and afternoon so we have enough water for drinking, cooking, baths, etc.
  • mosquitoes
  • the nights when the all-out refill runs out and i wake up covered in mosquito bites
  • the impromptu appearance of small marching bands outside our home on certain holidays
  • the do-it-yourself approach every self-respecting Bangalorean takes to igniting many, many fireworks on diwali, new year's, christmas, etc.
  • taking my daughter to see cows everyday in the neighborhood
  • taking my daughter to see horses everyday in the neighborhood
  • avoiding the stray dogs my daughter thinks are "nice doggies" in the neighborhood
  • hearing my daughter say "VENDA" to street vendors and beggars along with me
  • hearing my daughter say "hello, cow, shake hands! awww, come, sit lap!" when we pass a cow on the street
  • the helpfulness of the grocery store clerks here, you can still shop while you are being rung up, heedless of the line of people behind you
  • the adoration nearly every citizen here has for babies, toddlers, and children - no matter the class, caste, or creed, they live to make kids smile.
  • the adoration nearly every citizen here has for foreigners like myself :)
  • the lust for my greenbacks that nearly every small shop owner has
  • the almost daily contest of wills with my hot water geyser
  • the shoddy craftsmanship that is omnipresent in consumer durables
  • the freedom to call oneself an "electrician," "plumber," or even doctor without evidence of any talent or training in that particular arena
  • the freedom to keep a herd of cows even though you don't have any land to call your own
  • the freedom to drive motorbikes, scooters, horse-and-buggies, and bullock carts the wrong way up a one way street
  • the liberty which the government takes in declaring a street one-way in one direction and then abruptly, without notice, reversing that one-way direction of that same street.
  • my weekly grocery bill coming in under $50 US, and still being more than i pay the maid, ironically.
  • the fights with the sneaky, one-eyed HOPCOMS grocer to avoid purchasing more food than i need or want
  • the slow and subtle destruction of my non-stick cookware and kitchen gadgets by my "help"
  • the $3 or 250 INR fees to see a doctor, prescription drugs at almost 1/5 of the US cost in some cases
  • manicures and pedicures at half the US cost with twice the US service
  • 7-star hotel buffets at $20 per head, including 2 alcoholic beverages
  • no-power sundays and saturdays every coupla months

interesting technique for ridding self of beggars

My mother-in-law, who lived in Delhi (gurgaon, actually) for some years, has an interesting way of dealing with kid beggars. We were in the market area once (Commercial Street) and had stopped to buy freshly roasted peanuts from a street vendor (just 5 rupees!) and two beggar kids, a little over 10 years old, came over to beg from Fat White American Me. I was feeling embarrassed because I didn't want to give money to these kids because they work for a sort of pimp who takes most of their money anyhow.

My mother-in-law, having completed the peanut transaction, finally notices these kids who are pitifully calling "Maaa" to me, almost like sheep bleating. My mother-in-law grabs her pocketbook, looking like she's going to check it and shouts, "PICKPOCKETS??!!, hai, PICKPOCKETS??!!"

The kids RAN away so fast.

I told my husband about this technique later. He was aghast at what she'd done and said that must be a trick she learned up North (in Delhi). There are some choice jerks up there, he elaborated.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Indian etiquette

I remember one of the first times a family dropped in on us for the
Sunday afternoon visit. We served them tea and some homemade
goodies. I offered the goodies to each one personally, but i did so
only ONCE.

My husband was so irritated with me that I stopped at one offer. He
pulled me aside and urged me to offer the goodies twice more. Two
more times, but they already declined once! He told me that offering
only once was like a half-hearted attempt, that you really could not
care less if they ate the item or didn't eat the item. A well-bred
hostess will offer the same item three times to each guest and if
they decline on the third attempt, then you can give up. You've done
your part and they feel good that you really cared that they eat
something but they just didn't feel like it. So I went back and sure
enough some did eat when prompted for the third time.

So the next time we had people over, I offered three times in a row.

Do you want this?
No.
are you so you don't want this?
No.
Not at all?
No.

My husband was livid - it seems you have to pepper it thru the
evening, otherwise you're just being pushy.

Sigh.

i guess my ancestors really were barbarians. :(

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Both maids are gone...

We soon realized that asking the maids to stay until my FIL came back was dumb of us. Work quality decreased and their various pleas became more and more pitiful and nonsensical. The grandmother, though decreasing in age, was getting worse. The other one's mother was to celebrate her birthday on the 24th, etc.

The house is nice and quiet now - only my daughter's toddler noises are to be heard. I used to complain that I preferred my American dishwasher to my Malayalee dishwasher, because the former made much less noise than the latter.

My SIL and I did the jadoo-pucha (sweeping and swabbing) on this pirate ship we call home.

This morning I realized I am missing 400 rupees from my own wallet, one of my daughter's silver spoon, the leap frog fridge magnet that teaches the ABCs, and my sandwich-maker. I paid the maid $2400 per month and she took her own perks.

Monday, January 22, 2007

India... a million mutinies now

We came to India because life is "easier," since you have "domestics" to help you with all the work.  In the year and a half we have been here, we have been understaffed more than half of the time. Understaffed in this 4500 sq. ft house --without dishwasher or food processor, cleaning up after and feeding  4 adults and 1 toddler, and 1 huge terrace garden--means we have had only one servant.  In the "good" days we have had two.

To our irritation, most of these domestics first "loyalty" has been to my FIL.  It makes sense because a) he is the eldest in the house, and b) it is he who pays the bills (at least they get it directly from his hand on payday).  This isn't really loyalty, it's just that his work takes priority - his clothes, his cup of tea, his room getting cleaned, or any project he has assigned. Those tasks will always get done first and then they will move onto whatever I have assigned to them. 

My FIL has been gone not even 24 hours and one of them kinda gave notice.  Of course, this is India, and we have given her family an advance of 3000 rupees before she even started working --- so she didn't come right out and quit.  She gave lots of stories upon stories.  First, she told my SIL (who's a college senior - the "kid" of the house along with Anjali) that her grandmother is deathly ill and the doctor didn't think she'd make it much longer, that she wanted to go home and see granny before she died, but would come back in a few days - oh, and her granny is 100.  Now, I did the math and taking into account her reported age and she is from rural India (with its teenage brides and unaccessible health care), that this could not be her grandmother she was talking about.  The next day we heard the same sad news, but this time, her grandmother was only 85 and not 100.  

So we called our plantation supervisor (who counts amongst his duties finding domestics for us), and asked him to verify the story for us.  That is how we found out she was lying and that 3000 rupees had been advanced to her family for her to start working - turns out they said they were in a very tight spot and couldn't pay the school fees.  My SIL confronted her (my poor SIL has to take care of all this stuff because she speaks the languages here very well).  Over the next 12 hours she revised her "truth" in so many ways - grandmother still needs her, her younger brother's wife is due to give birth and they have to do some puja, we don't eat enough non-veg for her liking (she is Christian), she doesn't like our other "domestic," who talks as though she's her MIL, her mom is beating her kids because there is no money for their school fees, etc.) 

This new domestic has been with us for one week, the old domestic for 10 weeks. The older domestic treats all of us like we are her daughters-in-law, only she doesn't give us work.  She just keeps yapping yapping and gives us backtalk occasionally, and almost always butts in on our conversation to ask stupid questions. Also, she has always told little lies.  She told me she doesn't like ghee, but when I asked for a dosa she was making herself, it was so soaked in ghee, it practically slid down my throat.  She's been giving us all sorts of information and misinformation about this new girl - which we think is ironic because the two say they don't speak each other's language and so do not understand each other.  The "senior" domestic knows we have given 3000 rupees in advance and is now saying that she deserves a similar advance. 

Yes, life is much "easier" here. 

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

What do you call someone who can speak only one language?

American.  A few months ago, I took an Introductory Tamil course... and I speak very imperfectly but quite entertainingly. 

I have told the maids:
- to eat the baby, rather than feed the baby. "Baby shapadah."
- that my father-in-law has an "evil" heart, instead of not so healthy (bad)
- that they should take a shower after they finish playing, instead of working (i learned work and play at the same time and used the wrong word at the wrong time)

One of the maids, who used to work in the Gulf (is it Persian or Arabian?) thinks she speaks English well.  She told me she used to work for "my people" at Arby's.  I was impressed.  "Really, Arby's - the Arby's?," I asked, incredulous.  Note:  this woman is of the Nair caste - so for her to be slinging roast beef sandwiches for a living adds to the delicious incredulity.  I try to imagine her sans sari with the polycotton Arby's uniform, hat, and drive-thru headgear. 

She repeated it again, but this time it sounded like "army." 

"Oh, Army! You worked for the US Army?", I tried to clarify - maybe she'd worked on some Halliburton contractor. 

"ARABI! ARABI!," she started saying louder and more forcefully.

My sister-in-law clarified - "Arabs; she used to work for Arab families."

This same maid keeps making me some green "juice," something between lime juice and a mint julep - more mint than julep.  Rather tasty, but when I drink it, I feel like I'm drinking some secret concoction meant only for Arabs (which is what she insists, only They drink it, like it's some kind of Priory of Scion secret.) 


Monday, January 15, 2007

Happy Sankranti! Happy Pongal!

Today is a paid holiday in Bangalore - it is the festival of Sankranti or Pongal - whichever you like.  Tamilians celebrate Pongal and Kannadigas celebrate Sankranti.  I think they're the same thing, in both cases, you deck out your cow today and feed the cow some "pongal" - a rice dish.

Cows do so much for us, with their five products (milk, butter, cheese, cream, yogurt) and even their poop is used as cooking and heating fuel.  Today is like Mother's Day for cows.  You give her a nice mani/pedi, paint her horns, put bells on her horns and a necklace of bells, and you can even paint her hide with different colors of powder!  Beautiful!  Howda! ChandAM!  

And you must treat her to a nice breakfast of "chakra pongal" - a sort of rice pudding.

My mother-in-law treated my daughter and i to a truly desi treat today.  She brought us each a stick of sugar cane.  She then ripped the very thin bark off with her teeth, broke a section off, and divided it between us two.  My daughter LOVED it... 

It's a little like an apple, but with more of a "twiggy" feel when you chew it.  You're supposed to just chew it, suck the juice from it and only swallow the juice, you spit out the fibers.  This was right up my daughter's alley.  Her 2-year molars are troubling her, so she kept putting the stick of cane in just the right spot!  She also loves spitting - yes, we are so proud...  so for someone to encourage her to spit something out, she thought it was the best thing ever!

Usually she greets her "amooma" with a series of smacks (A-DEE! A-DEE! she will victoriously declare - A-dee means "beat'), rather than hugs and kisses.  I think today Amooma finally won the war for her heart and mind.  "Amooma!  .... LUCKY DAY!", she declared. 

I rather enjoyed eating the sugar cane, too...  I kinda felt like a monkey eating it... maybe that's why it's fun!

Friday, January 12, 2007

Religion in the workplace

I am sitting at the family's office in Indiranagar. It's getting to be closing time.

Every night at this time, an evening puja (prayer ceremony) is performed. One of the office boys (really a man) chops coconut into small pieces, breaks up a bunch of small bananas, cleans the puja area and lights the lamp. He walks about the office with the "sacred flame" - burning camphor placed on a metal plate. He stops at each employee and they hold their hands over the flame and bring it to their heads.

After the puja is performed, he distributes the prasad (the chopped coconut and small bananas) that was offered to God to the employees.

The employees are a mix of Christian, Hindu, and Muslim, but all participate in this puja.

Latest Indian English terms I have heard myself say...

1. my head is paining. (i have a headache)
2. that is the onely thing i don't like... that's only but pronounced as like the number onely...
3. you mean over by Frank Unthahny's (Anthony's) Public School?

Thursday, January 11, 2007

I hate it when the maid is right...

I really hate it when the maid, who probably didn't even make it thru
middle school, knows something I, a master's degree holder, do not!

It turns out there are two species of cilantro. One is a big leaf
variety, the other is a small leaf variety. The smaller leaf variety
has more flavor and costs more. I did not know it, but at least I
handled it better than my college senior sister-in-law. The two of
them were arguing in Tamil, and even the vendor was joining in.
Actually, it is wise to argue because sometimes maids and vendors
will connive together to rip off firengi memsahibs just out of
patriotism or caste pride.

Libran lover of harmony that I am, I came up with a compromise. Let's
buy a bunch of both and have a taste test, I told them. All were
happy with that and that is how I found out the maid is right. Aiyo,
I hate that feeling.

Mugged by a cow in HAL market...

One of the things that I love about India is the freshness of the produce.  I have never eaten such fresh fruits and vegetables in my life!

When I can, I like to hit the HAL market (so named for the neighborhood - Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd Layout).  This is a small market, where the fruits and vegetables are just 2 days away from the farm (produce first comes to City Market in the center of town, then gets distributed to the other small markets.  Tree-huggers would love the do-no-harm ecological approach these markets embrace. 

First, they let cows roam freely thru the market.  The cows eat the produce that has wilted and no one will buy.  All the vendors just throw the "bad" produce into the walkways, where the customers and cows mingle.  Second, most customers bring their own bags, rather than rely on the cheap plastic bags the vendors give you - these bags are notorious for ripping just over a cow patty. YUM!

The market is a noisy place.  Vendors are constantly trying to attract your attention, especially if you're a firangi memsahib.  "Madaaam, Madaam, nice oranges you see, 50 rupees/kilo, all the way from your Australia." (I am not Australian, btw) "Caaarrrots, Caaaarrrots!"  Now and then an ambitious cow moseys along the walkway, stops at a vendor's table and attempts to gobble at the good stuff.  In between the "madam, madaaam" cries are the "Hei! PO PO! BhajuHUT!" - Tamil and Hindi for GO, Get Lost! - aimed at the cows.  Also, many vendors drink on the job - a freedom even most Americans do not enjoy. 

At the market the other day, I was admiring one particular cow while my maid was picking thru bundles of "keerai" - a relative of spinach.  Unlike most market cows, this cow was not covered in dung, she was very clean and looked like she belonged on a milk carton!  The cow came towards me, and too late, i realized she was after the cucumbers that were poking out of my basket.  She stuck her head in my basket and I just cried "Heeeeyyy!," then my maid gave the cow a good smack on the side and the cow moved away with half a cucumber.   

Yuck!  The maid threw the other half into the walkway... and all the market enjoyed the escapade.  Maybe they paid the cow off!  :-)


Wednesday, January 10, 2007

The evil eye...

Whenever I take Anjali to a party or similar gathering, my in-laws tell me to put a black dot somewhere visible on the her face.  This is to avoid attracting the Evil Eye.  People may say so many nice things to the child, that some evil vibes get jealous and attach themselves to the child.  All the evil vibes will be absorbed by the black dot and then be washed off, rendering them harmless.

If the child doesn't wear the black dot, she may get Evil Eye.  This can cause sickness, bad luck, and just that creepy feeling so it's hard to settle them down.  If she gets Evil Eye, you can hold a lime and red chili over her head and circle it a few times, then you're supposed to burn the lime and chili to get rid of the Evil Eye.  

Servants like to offer to do these removal services whenever we come back from an outing and my daughter seems out of sorts.  I don't know if it's because they believe in it or they just want to earn brownie points with my inlaws. 

A few months ago, my husband was adamant that my daughter get an "alus" (sp?).  An alus is one of those tiny metal vials that you wear around your neck, it is usually filled with some sacred stuff that has been blessed in a puja (prayer ceremony) for the person's protection.  His mom and her sister got one for us from one of the family temples in Kerala.  Our daughter now wears it 24/7.  

I thought that now since she wears this alus wherever she goes, she wouldn't need the black mark anymore.  Not so, apparently this alus is against "black magic."   

Who the hell does he know that has the time for black magic?  This is a wacko place. 

You should see this one kid in my daughter's mommy-n-me class, he's got six or seven protective charms around his neck on a black thread in all kinds of metals.  My daughter's a snob that way, she has only 22kt everything. :) 

Oh No! it's the po-po...

The Indian po-po (police) are badly in need of a makeover, from their uniforms to their values.

Sure, there are many honest cops here but i think they occur in the same ratio as albinos : normal skinned people.  

By now, everyone has heard of the disgusting case of lax policing that occurred in Noida.  That is an extreme case. However, I know and have spoken to many people here who have been the victims of a crime - i.e.,  from a maid stealing some jewelry to actual home-invasion style mugging, and they have either reported it to the police and regretted it, or they have chosen not to report it to the police because they don't want the hassle. 

What happens is police shortlist suspects, and depending upon the severity of their alleged crimes, rough them up to get a confession.  With that confession, they go back to the victim and ask them if they want to proceed with the case, and usually ask for compensation for the trouble they took to get this far in the case. 

What is even more appalling is that if you have a beef against somebody, you can just implicate them in a police complaint.  You pay the police some money to do the ugly business, and the cops find the person, bring them to the station for "booking," but they never do book them, instead they take them to a part of the station where no one ever goes and beat and torture the living daylights out of them for the time requested by the paying customer.   I know of two such incidents.  

A very sweet man who has worked for our family for 15 years has been a victim of this unofficial vengeance system.  He is unhappily married and his wife will not give him a divorce (she is Christian) and tries to get the most money out of him all the time (like any good wife, right? :).  She beats him regularly, and has even had her father beat him.  He doesn't like this treatment, so naturally he found another woman who treats him sweetly.  When he did that, his mother-in-law paid the police a few thousand rupees to have him picked up and beaten the crap out of.  

I am tempted to pay the equivalent to have the mother-in-law beaten up.  

Another man is a well-educated, professional.  I only got glimpses of the back story (i was not in the country when it happened), but it turns out someone paid 100,000 rupees to have him picked up and beaten for three consecutive days.  This was the work of an amateur "Cigarette-Smoking Man," who had a convincing false case built and published in the newspaper.... so that must mean the press is in on it, too!  I guess his crime was that he lent someone a lot of money and had collected it from them, but they hadn't want to repay it at all.

So many Indians, especially the youth, have their patriotism dampened when such things occur.