Saturday, March 11, 2006

Five Uneasy Pieces

The Good, the Bad, and the Idlis

This morning unseasonal rain fell upon Mylapore. As it pitter-pattered on the rooftop outside, I spent one hour trying to get four teas and one plate of idly delivered to the room. After two phone calls and three trips downstairs, I ended up getting - no kidding - fourteen idly - and no tea. ("Four teas and idly" = fourteen idly. Sure, everyone orders idly in groups of precisely fourteen.)

The desk clerk is so freaked out at having to wait on 1-a foreigner, 2-a single woman and 3-an English speaker that he can't even look me in the eye - not even in the general vicinity. I had to say, as he resolutely stared into space (in the opposite direction), "Sir, I am asking you a question. Look at me.
Yes, in the eyes" (pointing with 2 pronged peace-sign mudra to my own eyes). "Thank you. Now, may I have my breakfast, please?"

I think I need a vacation in Thailand, and about a month of margaritas on the beach. I am turning into the Jack Nicholson character in Five Easy Pieces.

This desk clerk, with his perfectly round eyes and puffy froglike cheeks, is the same young man who, the first 3 times I asked for room service, said nothing when first questioned, then said "no room service!" and finally retorted angrily, "Vegetarian Only!" To which I smiled calmly and said glad to hear it, because I am a vegetarian myself. Now may I please order? if it's okay with you? Mylapore is pretty trad Hindu, which ironically is one reason I wanted to stay here. They see few stayover foreigners, and they seem to assume that non-Indians are all meat-eating barbarians. They really just don't like having a single foreign woman staying in their hotel, it freaks them out. (Before you accuse me of insensitivity to the proletariat, this guy has a pretty peachy "job" - all he has to do is sit at this AC desk, with a beautiful view of the Mylapore teertha, and watch cricket on the cable TV all day).

Fortunately, there is an older Brahmin gentleman there who appears to be from the elder generation, when they taught them prep school English (before the later 1960s nationalist generation, when it became taboo to learn English. Now it's changed again and the teenagers and 20-somethings learn English, but there's a whole generation stuck in between thanks to nationalism). Anyway, fortunately the old guy in the dhoti is not too threatened to speak to me civilly (even looking in my general direction and smiling, of all things). All the younger one will do when I ask him a question is jerk his chin in an upward motion and stare straight ahead.

Now I know why the backpackers stay in Triplicane despite its depressing, sordid nature - at least there are people they can relate to and vice versa. The desk clerks at the shoddy dumps there speak some English - or at the very least, don't resent being asked to (and why should they resent it? it's one of the 2 National Languages of the country) - and are accustomed to foreign faces. All this alienation and sudden feeling of "otherness" - after three years in the country - is just too much. But when I step out onto the Mylapore streets the smells, sights and sounds are still enchanting as ever.

Highway Robbery
English travel writer and SirenSupporter Tim Makins wrote this woefully complete (!) account of the Indian Autorickshaw Experience, with my own commentary below.
Coming Attractions for India newcomers!

At the start, you say exactly where you want to go. You negotiate waiting time. You agree on a price, then set off.

You are friendly during the day, and when you want a drink or a snack, you buy him one too.* But as the day goes on, you can just feel his mind working away, trying to work out how much money he can get off you. Near the end, he gets suspiciously friendlier and tries to be even more helpful. You think he's done a good job, and that you'll pay an extra 50rs tip (translation: about $1.25 US, the daily wage of some labourers like street sweepers).

You get back to your hotel, give him the money and the tip, and he's disappointed. He starts complaining about waiting time, the stops, anything he can think of to get more money. Your tip now feels dirty. His friendliness, sharing drinks now feels a sham. This has happened time and time again in India - in fact, for me, its the worst aspect of visiting this wonderful country. Sometimes he then hangs around outside the hotel for ages, waiting for me to come out again. A couple of times, he's worked himself into such an anger of greed and dashed expectations that he throws the money on the floor, and refuses to pick it up.

*(SirenNote: this is usually a mistake - Indian clients never do this. I used to think they were being stingy, and now I know why. It is not seen by the driver as noblesse oblige generosity, but as a sign of your weakness and stupidity).

Truer words were rarely spoken, Tim. Especially the complaints about the waiting time (like he could have been making a fortune out there, if only you hadn't held him up for an extra 20 minutes). Thanks for writing in detail about this very demoralizing, very common India experience. The amazing thing to me is - it is invariably when I am feeling the most generous - like, hey, this is a really nice guy, he's doing a good job, maybe I will give him a better than usual tip - it is unfailingly at these times that the driver himself (or worker, or teacher, or whoever) seems to decide "aha! I can get even more out of this person." Amazingly, though I utter not a word, they can sense my turn of heart and are ready to exploit it.

Most foreigners who bother to come to India - let's face it, it's quite off the beaten path for an American or European's holiday destination - are social liberals, who really want to be generous with "the people" and leave feeling sorely burned after such encounters.

I have actually learned to regard such internal surges of generosity with suspicion (when I get that warm, fuzzy feeling of brotherhood...that's when I'm about to be ripped off).

You can almost see the cogs in their petty minds ticking away...they are already fantasizing how they're going to spend all the money they ganked out of the stupid, rich foreigner, who just by dint of being foreign, inherently deserves to be ganked. It is their own foregone fantasy that angers them so when in fact their scheme doesn't work out. Wait a minute, what do you mean I can't get an extra 100Rs, I've already decided how I'm going to spend it!

I very calmly but firmly repeat, "At that time, you are agreeing this price. You take this money, or you get nothing." When they refuse to take my money, I leave the originally agreed-upon amount with them - they are free to throw it on the ground in contempt if they like - walk away and threaten to call the police (holding up my all-powerful cell phone). What they're doing is no different from any other kind of extortion or highway robbery and I treat it that way - as a crime, which it is.

"Foreigners" are here to stay in India - in fact, we've been coming for about 300 years - and if we indulge these criminals or allow them to intimidate us ("oh, just give them the money, it's not worth it") it will just encourage more of the same, on a bigger scale.


Aadil said...

Great post and I just love the way you say that about foreigners being ripped off by these autorickshaw and taxi guys who think they have found gold when they take you in their vehicles for a day!!! I suppose everyone becomes greedy when they see a foreigner who tends to pay more than the locals anyway and by foreigner I mean even the Indian foreigner from other cities in India travelling to other parts of the country when he is recognised as not being a local then he is given the same treatment meted out to you (real) foreigners!!! If you don't know the local rates then you have been had by these local rickshaw drivers so be careful when fixing the rates and all other prices with these conmen!!!


Shinu Mathew said...

How true! Aadil exposed another side of the petty robbers. I have many a times saw these poor backpackers, not knowing the local language, try to argue about the steep rate. Most of the time unsuccessfully. The rikshaw drivers and cabbies take the longest route possible to extract money from the traveller if they insist on running the meter. Or if they agree upon a price before starting, they charge more than double the money from foreigners.
The street vendor, the florist, even the beggars expect a bomb from them.
It is as if their right to squeeze them. Once I was at the Mumbai International Airport waiting for my friend to arrive, I saw this German lady who were arguing to a cabbie. I went there asked her what's the problem. She wanted to go to a mere 15 KM from the Airport and was asking this cabbie to take her. He told him to walk few meters beyond the police out post and get in to avoid paying to the police. I countered him asking what's that and he said he never told her to do that. I knew he was trying to con that poor thing and wanted to extract some extra money in the name of saving her some bribe. I toild him that I'll call the police and he quitely drove away his cab along with that lady.

bottled-imp said...

hi siren,

am from DSS, and i love travelogues. would be nice if you just give links to your blog here from that site.

have read the first blog on your site, will have to come for me.

come on, it is not that we indian have an easy time with auto fellows but i do understand that tourists will get ripped off a little more. and its not true that indians dont buy them anything, i always do.


Sirensongs: Indologist At Large said...

Welcome, Bottled Imp.

Yes, words like "never" are best not used in such a diverse population. I should have said "seldom."

It is not that Indians an easy time from drivers, just that foreigners get a harder time than others. This is what I call false dualism (for lack of a better word ) --just because I said "foreigners get a hard time" doesn't mean I am then saying "Indians get an easy time." So please don't extrapolate that conclusion from my statements.

Additionally, I am not the NY Times or any other major media outlet and do not represent myself to be giving "the whole story" about anything - this is a journal about my experiences. Recently someone else got onto me for not "representing" the presence of women in Indian life "accurately," because I said they were rarely found in a certain type of job (in this case, restaurant work). It does not necessarily follow, then, that they are found nowhere in public - just not in those jobs. I was not making a documentary about the role of women in all of Indian life, just discussing one aspect. It troubles me that someone would then distort that into "you are saying women are not found in Indian public life" - I said nothing of the sort.

If any of you wish to finance me in the full time job of being an allaround documenter of Indian life I am glad to accept donations.

It is not my responsibility to present each and every facet of my every day walks around the neighborhood and I assume, perhaps incorrectly, that my viewers realize that.

bottled-imp said...

siren, nobody can give a complete picture of what india is. it is too large, too complex and too dynamic. not even an indian, so i dont expect that from any writer. but then, i think words from people like you will be taken more seiouly than words from someone like me.

sometimes, i read writers interpreting. like this woman writing about cows having large stomaches due to eating plastic from dumps, and due to which they move slowly in pain. am not sure how right she is on that front. could it not be that indian cows have smaller heads compared to the popular breed in usa/europe?

the part about the auto in my comment should have gone into Tim's page.

conidering the background and experience you have, i wish i have the resources to fund you.

Sirensongs: Indologist At Large said...

Dear BottledImp:
Thanks (as always) for dialogue. Your Auto comments really belong on my page, first because that's where you saw them and I added my own similar commentary, sort of claiming them for my own and seconding them; but more importantly because I don't think they appear on Tim's page - they were taken from a post on a forum group online.

It never ceases to amaze me that Indians think I would be taken more seriously than they (and that is *not* sarcastic - it just amazes me). I wonder who "someone like (me)" is - a white lady with a camera and a big mouth? (smile)

Thanks for your kind sentiments about funding. I do accept payment for investigating and providing information about various things, places and situations, but don't write publicity or flattering press releases. This is the land of a billion stories and I am lucky just to cover a fraction at a very exciting time in India's history.

Sirensongs: Indologist At Large said...

Same idea, diff. phrasing:...since it's really out of my scope, and maybe anyone's, to write about India In General and this naturally leads to incompleteness and inaccuracy, I usually try to write about my own experience (hence the title) with general observations thrown in from time to time.

bottled-imp said...

"I usually try to write about my own experience (hence the title) with general observations thrown in from time to time."

am looking forward to read all of them...

since you are in mylapore, here is a blog i wrote about a year ago, when i just about moved to chennai and decided to walk to mylapore. have you tried out the new sarvana, on the other side of the tank?

Ritesh Banglani said...

Chennai auto drivers are the worst in all of India. Every single time I go there, this same pattern repeats itself. The last time I was there I experienced another variant - the driver actually came up to my room and started yelling abuse from outside. Auto drivers in other (smaller) cities are far less aggressive, though.

King Amdo said...

'Hustle' is just a test...when you no longer get hustle then you have aclimatised truely...this was particularly so for Morrocco...where the hustle is the most finely tuned pyscological test for westeners ever invented.

perhaps your maoist associations are adversly degrading your karma etc Siren!


King Amdo said...

I think you should move on to Kumoan Siren...spring there would be heaven...and away from reception centres, there wont be this aggressive hustle at all...find a temple rest house, obtain some charras and OM's your uncle and Kali's ya aunt! Indian's...Hindu's...respect mountains as the living beings that they are, and the goddess as the living diety that she is our Mother OM!

This is so fantasitic compared to the western drongo' different from here where only hippys and the mentally ill believe such herasy.

Trust me Kumaon is'll need some warm cloths though.


King Amdo said... wont find western food there though...just the standard rice and dall...tribal food...rough and course, course hot flavour...nothing like western curry house to live.