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.
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.
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