Sunday, June 29, 2008

notes on arrival

(from early June)

As we flew over Batman, Turkey (no, seriously, Google-map it... it's there), we suddenly changed course to avoid the northern tip of Iraq by just miles, and entered western Iran. Batman saves the day again! We then headed east for what seemed like hours (Iran is REALLY long) and suddenly swerved to avoid Afghanistan, entering southern Pakistan instead. My favorite parts of the flight were (they bumped me to first class, no charge, at the last minute, so there were a lot): naming dessert "dinner epilogue," three course dinner served, mimosas and cava brut served before you've even put your bag away, your seat reclines into your own pod space to sleep, your personalized computer/TV/cinema screen has almost everything you can think of, you can get more food/snacks/wine whenever you want, the attendant is actually dressed in a waiter outfit, there's even a USB/internet port in the wall.... glasses and silverware, of course, are what your comestibles are served in.... essentially all I was missing was my own sleeping cabin. I also loved watching the other passengers' viewing selections, many of which were Bollywood movies. The subtitles to the movie being watched next to me read, at one point (in the middle of an excuberant dance number): "all cool boys c'mon, make some noise, om shomni shom." This was a good precursor to my experience in Chennai so far- weird phrases using English words but hardly making sense when put together, interrupted by another language (Malayalam, Telugu, Tamil, Hindi, etc etc.). Strewn together with Seh (Sir) and Mum (Ma'am) and a slew of Indianized (read: hard to distinguish) British terms, making communication very interesting with anyone but the highest executives at my workplace. Anyway... unfortunately I have just lost my digital camera in a taxi which may or may not report back to me as to its existence, but as of now I still do remember some of the funny pictures I took. One of them was of a sign at the airport, which read: "Did you know you are most welcome in Mumbai right now?" No... I did not. Thank you! Did you know that I am most thankful? Also, the recent tourist campaign put on by the Indian government, with the slogan "Incredible India" was continued on a tour bus parked in my neighborhood... "Incredible India: the slogan with which we use to woo tourists!" OK, now you just ruined it, I've found you out and am now sore at you. You were only trying to woo me. Now I'm leaving.

As for my accomodations, for 12,000 Rupees ($280/mo) I have a bed-and-breakfast room with my own entry and bathroom, a maid who serves breakfast/dinner, cleans the room, washes/irons laundry (the owner of the house has a gardener as well, and a driver to drive him to work), and a driver of a car called an Ambassador (looks extremely 1948 Britain) to drive me to/from my work sites, chartered by my employer.

Despite all this, life's not all berries and cream... I worry daily I will contract the Dengue or Bubonic Plague (the Black Death actually originated in either the central Asian steppes or India before trade ships accidentally brought it to Europe) or something similar. The ceiling fan, anti-mosquito plug-in doohicky, bug spray, and malarial pills are used daily.

I have been going to sleep at 10 pm every night and waking up at 6 am. The last time I remember doing this consistently was before age 12. You get so exhausted from doing nothing all day that you have no choice but to doze off- the heat is ridiculous. If I actually had hard work to do, I don't know how I wouldn't just sleep at 6 pm, Uncle Robert style. Just sweating is a full time job.

Some totally disjointed notes:

Men wear dhotis all over the neighborhoods, and in the business area wear business casual, and nowhere is a tie seen, thank god. They are ahead of the USA in at least one sense, I am glad to see. The idea of a tie is ridiculous to them. Let's import their fashion trendsetters to America. Women wear sarees almost exclusively. I have seen less than ten women in Chennai wearing western clothes. Those that are wearing sarees range from dirt-poor beggars to business women; regardless of economic status, they are almost always spotless, magnificent, and match the hair tie, shoes, nail polish, pants, and tops underneath. Most women also have white jasmine flower garlands in their hair, sold by streetside vendors. Tamil equivolent of a lei?

I am at a severe disadvantage, mustache-wise. Man. I've never seen so many mustaches in my life. I will suggest, at the next board meeting, the commencement of a robust Mustache Exportation Programme to mitigate the rising raw material and transport costs for their subsidiaries. Even the big Kollywood (but not Bollywood) moviestars have these enormous mustachios. The big-wig politico candidates, painted on road dividers, all sport monster walrus 'staches. It is subcontinental machismo at its best. I am thinking of buying a fake one and pasting it on. Speaking of business plans, I loved pg. 65 of the Carborundum Universal Ltd.'s (the company I am visiting currently, owned by Murugappa Group) shareholder report: "Intangible assets: goodwill- 5.1 million rupees." And later, on page 68--- "Donations: communist Party of India (marxist): 100,000 rupees." I inquired as to the thinking behind donating to a group of people who in no way support you, and found out it is actually hush money (commonly done in corporate India). Without donations, the party will send investigators and find problems in your plant and publicize them and use it in their party campaign. Yearly donations keep them away.

Tamils enjoy honking. A lot. In America, it translates to "f$#@$k you!", "look out, you/I/we am/are about to die", "get the hell out of my way", or other such extremes. In Chennai, and New Delhi, I learned it to mean all those things, in addition to the more common "hello!", "I'm passing", "excuse me sir", etc. etc. It is used for even turning corners, when there is no one else around, just to alert others of your existence, which is whizzing by at breakneck speeds. As Tamils are unfortunately very hospitable and kind people, the use of honking for saying "hello" and "excuse me" makes the streets a hellish auditory experience, and the honking begins outside my window at 6 am anyway so I have no choice but to wake up, amidst the peacock hoots and shrieks.

My favorite names of stores and products so far: "Mummy Daddy" (general store), "Hunky Dory" (children's clothing), "Jamz: to your Hearts [sic] Delight" (shortbread jam cookies), "Sparky's: Never Trust a Skinny Chef" (restaurant).

(regarding government inefficiency and long waits:) My landlord angrily exclaimed while weaving in and out of traffic on my first day, "I don't know what all these people are rushing to do! Once they get to work, they will just sit around and waste everyone's time! Change this rush and passion into work effort!"

Sometimes my rickshaw driver uses hand signals to turn, just as a BICYCLE would.... then, a few times, I have had them stop at a corner store for a big bag of betel nuts (their version of chewing tobacco), excusing themselves with an unintelligible "ng one" (hang on?). Thankfully, you figure out your fare before hand, so no meter is running- they are so untrustable with meters that you always strike a deal before. If not, they will tell you the meter isnt working, and there is a new rate... so you have to pay ____ more than what it says. Recent improvisations have included stopping at a petrol station immediately after picking me up and then asking for me to pay for the refill, and stopping at the destination street instead of at the destination number AND street, and, claiming confusion and mistranslation, directed to pay extra for delivery to actual destination.

Power outages hit about once per hour at the work sites (factory sites) and a few times a day at home. Power returns very shortly but all work sites have giant generator buildings, out of (qualified) distrust of the power grid. Interestingly, much power is privately owned- not all governmentally. The power outages are times in between one grid- it is rerouted once one fails. Nobody bats an eye when this happens- it's someone sneezing or something. Very strange.

Most interesting for me as been public displays of affection. While kissing a woman in public would draw more than stares, likely ire, I have seen scores of men holding hands daintily for extended periods of time (strolling) and even at the workplace, in the middle of conversation, or the "dangling handshake" as I call it... even arm over arm, walking down the street, and once I saw a face to face embrace.... this complete flip of American norms is bizarre to me, as it is explained to me that none of these men are gay- it is just their expression of affection.

Cricket is so popular here that there are 48 Murugappa teams that play each other, yet none other sports (I inquired). I was asked on the first day to join, even though I don't play or even know the rules of cricket. Basketball and baseball are virtually unknown, and soccer is a distant second to cricket. No one even cares about rugby. I thought that was a Commonwealth thing? Apparently not. Games last twice as long as American sports; we'll see how long I last on our weekend-ly matches. I am to be "batsman" as they tell me baseball is the closest I can get to cricket; basketall experience is not relevant.

I attended a heated collective bargaining session conducted entirely in Tamil at Carborundum Universal Ltd.'s Maraimalainagar plant today. Every once in a while, math entered into the equation, to which I was thankful to the Arabs for a brief moment, for their invention so long ago. Otherwise, all was lost on me. Afterwards, it was translated for me the Employer wanted their 10 points pushed, mostly increased performance (and pay associated with an increase in the latter), and the union wanted: less work.

On a finishing note, I would like to send you an email an MILR colleague of mine sent to me explaining why my scheduled last day of work was quite an interesting choice of dates:

"You obviously wouldn't have seen the irony in the white man leaving from India on August 15th: its our independence day - when the English gave up and left :) "


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