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."