Wednesday, December 26, 2007

My Rickety Rickshaw

About a month ago, I purchased my own mode of conveyance. As you can see in the picture to the left, it is a simple bicycle with some useful accessories. Deciding what to buy was a difficult decision. Here were the options I considered:

I. Car

Most people in Gurgaon recommended a car. I could take the car to the office, use it any time of the year (including the cold winters and hot summers), and take it Delhi without having to pay 400Rs for a cab each way. I could also take friends out to malls, movies, etc. with a car.

But, there were several problems with getting a car. First, I can't drive manual. I could get an automatic car, but that would have been more expensive. Second, I am not accustomed to driving on the left. Third, I didn't feel that a car was a necessity. Everything that I could do with car I could do without a car (i.e. office cab, friends' cars, taxis, cycle rickshaws, walking).

Price range: 100,000 Rs - 500,000 Rs

II. Motorcycle

This was what I had really wanted. Getting a motorcycle in the US is not so easy - you have to get a motorcycle license and take motorcycle classes. In India, depending on where you are, you don't really need a motorcycle license. I talked to a few dealers and showed them my US driving license. They said that it was enough to get a motorcycle - whether it is or not I don't know, but hey, this is what they said. Also, motorcycles are called 'bikes' in India.

However, of the people I talked to, about 90% strongly recommended that I not get a motorcycle. These people included my US family, my India family, and my colleagues. When I saw the driving conditions in Gurgaon, I knew why they said 'no'.

Price range: 20,000 Rs - 50,000 Rs

III. Scooter
The pluses and minuses of the scooter are about the same as for a motorcycle. Most scooters can't go as fast as bikes, but some new ones can go even faster. Another difference is that a scooter is slightly safer than a bike because there is a gap between both knees so you are not trapped in your scooter in an accident. Also, a scooter is slightly cheaper.

Price range: 10,000 - 50,000 Rs
IV. Cycle

The cycle is the cheapest option. It's also easy to maintain. And, it's safer than a motorcycle / scooter because you are off to the side of the road, not in the middle of it with motorists. It's also good exercise. The disadvantages are that you can't go as far with it as compared to the 3 options above and it's not as safe if you need to ride it at night since you're completely exposed and not travelling that fast.

Price range: 1,000 Rs - 15,000 Rs

The hierarchy of transportation vehicles in India goes:

1) SUV - kings of the road, above all laws, terrorizer of the streets. To be feared be any and all.
2) Car - a respectable way to get around.
3) Motorcycle - the 'cool' option. A fun way to travel but don't expect people to give you space. They will purposely drive close to you, especially if they are in 1) or 2), to show you where 'your place' is on the road.
4) Scooter - basically like 3), but actually it's a bit safer. Because there is no equipment separating your legs, you can actually jump off in an accident. In a motorcycle, you are going down with the bike.
5) Bicycle - pretty low on the totem pole, you get no respect from anyone. Cycle carefully and yield to all traffic, including oxen and definitely buffalo.
6) Pedestrian - even lower on the totem pole than cyclists. You're not even safe on the side of the road, because motorcycles and scooters can still get you.
7) Not leaving your house - sometimes the safest and smartest option!

I went with option 5 on the list and am happy with my choice. My cycle also has some important accessories. First, I have helmet. Second, I have a powerful light (xenon LED I think) attached to my handle bars to pierce the night, dust, and fog. Third, I have a bell for announcing my presence (as if any motorists would even care). Fourth, I have a combination lock (thought it's not very long). Fifth, I have a cushion seat cover, for obvious reasons. My bike has 6 speeds, which does the job. What I need however is a carrier that will attach to my back wheel.

Right now, I ride my bike to Viyepar Kendra, Galleria, malls, etc. to do some shopping and occasionally to work. My ride did become rickety, recently. As I was riding to work, I went over a pot hole and my handle bars jarred loose. I paid 20 Rs to my maid's husband to fix the problem, and now it's good as new!

So there you have it: My Rickety Rickshaw (which will indeed be a rickshaw when I get my carrier as I will then be able to give people a lift).

Sunday, December 23, 2007

The life and times of maids

I just had a 20 minute discussion with my maid about her life (in Hindi no less, with my trusty Rough Guide to Learning Hindi / Urdu at my side), and so I thought I should write this now while the thoughts are still fresh in my mind.

I and many of my colleagues use the term 'maid', but most people in India still use the term 'servant' or 'maid-servant'. In fact, 'servant' is more common if the 'domestic helper' (the most politically correct term) lives with his/her client family. However, things are changing and maids are more empowered (mine carries a cell phone). And, she is trustworthy. This is worth a premium to me. Initially, I was planning not to employ a maid and instead do the cooking / cleaning / clothes washing myself. However, having a maid has forced me to speak and understand Hindi. This has been one of the best things about having a maid.

I came to Gurgaon just when another SAP colleague was leaving the company and the city. I moved into his flat without paying a broker fee, which would have been 1 month's rent or 12,000 Rs. Second, I got a good maid straight away. Jasvir recommended his maid to me and I have employed her since the beginning. I was lucky because I didn't have to go through the trial-and-error selection process where you try a few maids and fire each one because of some act of dishonesty or unreliability. The turnover of 'non-live-in' maids (maids who don't live in your house) is very high. If you're not happy with your maid, you can easily find another one. Likewise, if your maid doesn't like you, she can easily find a new client.

For the first few weeks, I communicated to my maid exclusively through Jasvir and my neighbors. At this time I didn't have any cooking necessities like a fridge, stove, spices, etc. so my maid prepared a daily tiffin for me. This consisted of rice, chapati, some vegetable, and salad and cost 50 Rs per meal. After getting the cooking necessities, which happened in mid-October, my maid started cooking for me. She cooks extremely well, making things like Aloo Gohbi, Tomater (potato, cauliflower, and tomato), Aloo Palak (potato and spinach), Dal (various kinds), Chappati, Rajma (kidney beans), Chole (garbonzo beans), and other things. My maid also cleans my apartment and washes my clothes daily.

I have found that my maid is reliable about 70% of the time. There are times when she doesn't show up for stretches, either because she's ill (which I believe given her living conditions) or because she is attending festivals somewhere. We have worried about her illnesses but she has gone to the doctor a few times and so far it has been nothing serious. My maid must be in her late 40s and gets up at 5:30am each day to work at her client's houses - so she is clearly a hard worker. My guess is that she works in about 5 houses, all in my area. Of course, there are arguments about money between her clients and her. The problem, I believe, is her husband. Her husband is an out-of-work gardner who charges about 600 Rs for gardening. Essentially my maid is supporting both of them and also sending money to her children who are in Rajasthan.

Recently, I used my maid's help to prepare for a party I had at my apartment. I called 10 of my friends over for an American / Italian style dinner. I bought soup, garlic bread, pasta, sauce, and vegetables from the story. We boiled the pasta and sauteed the vegetables. We mixed the two with some spices - I think we went a little overboard with the spices and the pasta became a little too 'Indian', but the crowd seemed to enjoy it. We called my aunt and grandmother in Bombay to get directions for the cooking.

I now communicate with my maid 90% on my own, of course with my trusted Rough Guide at my side. She knows what I like and makes it - she even makes Rasam now because my grandmother asked her to do this for me.

My maid lives about 10 minutes (walking) from me 'on the other side of the road' which, if it's where I'm thinking, is a not-so-great part of town. She lives with her husband in one room of a flat with 4 rooms. The flat is owned by a policeman who charges 2000Rs per room (which is equal to the amount I pay her per month). However, the other 3 rooms are occupied by about 4 people each, mostly Rajasthani workers who mostly go to the market and buy the cooking supplies that my maid needs to do the work at her various houses. However, my maid owns a small 1 room house in UP (Uttar Pradesh). Her space is very cramped here in Gurgaon. I have also met her niece, a talkative 14 year old girl who occassionally comes to my flat to help her. Unfortunately, this girl has already quit school. The reality is that money now is more important than money later, so education falls by the wayside.

So how did our conversation end?

Maid: "India bahut garib hain." (India is very poor)
Ravi: "Hainji, bahut Lodi hain." (Yes, too many people)
Maid: "Bahut garib, bahut lodi, paisa nahi." (Too poor, too many people, no money)

The fundamental problem with India is just that: too many people. You can trace almost every single problem in India to this one fact.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

3 months in India

I completed 3 months in India on December 9, 2007. I'm happy to report that I am safe and sound and that while I've gotten a taste of India, the adventure has yet to truly begin.

September was a month for settling in. I arrived in Bombay on September 10 and took a few days to adjust to the new time. I then travelled north to Delhi. It took the remainder of September and half of October to get set up in my apartment. I did a fair amount of travelling in October, visiting destinations like Chennai, Goa, and Haridwar & Rishikesh. November and December have been pretty busy, so I haven't gotten to travel as much.

I have a had a few bouts with minor illnesses (stomach viruses, cold, flu, etc.) but nothing serious. Now, I feel much more adjusted to the environment. The dust does not bother me as much, but the heat might be an issue after March. The weather has been chilly for the last month, but I have a heater and extra, thick blanket to fight off the cold. Plus, I am going to the gym regularly now, which seems to have strengthened my immune system. I have also adopted a healthier diet, eating 90% of my food from my maid, who cooks healthy food.

I finally registered with US Embassay in New Delhi. Hopefully I will get to know about social events for other expats. The plan for January and onwards to travel much more. I still need to see Rajashtan, Kashmir, Bengal, the North-Eastern states, and Cuddalore.

Emotionally, I have gone from highs to lows to highs in these 3 months. After all, India is a country of highs and lows, so I should not have expected anything else. I was on a high in the first few weeks, delighting in everything that was different in India and feeling ecstatic about finally getting the international experience I have been waiting for most of my life. This period was followed a low that lasted several more weeks in which I was paranoid about my health and my safety. I realized in this period that you have to be careful in India and especially in Gurgaon, where poverty is juxtaposed with the new middle class. I also realized how different I am compared to others - and yet how similar we are as well. In the 3rd and current period, I have more or less accepted the differences and have adjusted. I have also made a more concerted effort to learn Hindi.

Monday, December 3, 2007

And God Said, 'Let there be light!'

I didn't really know what to expect on the day of Diwali. I have heard stories about what it's like to actually experience Diwali in India. In a country like India, I thought, anything is possible. The enthusiasm people have for Diwali was apparent given the festivities in the weeks leading up to Diwali. The way people really turned out for SAP's Diwali events, the Mela festiveness, and the incenssant fire crackers in the nights for the previous month (which scared my US colleagues who thought I was in the middle of a gunfight when I was on calls with them) told me that I should be ready for something big on the day of Diwali.

I had made plans to spend Diwali with a colleague of mine, Kunnal Bali, who graciously invited me to spend Diwali with him and his family in Dwarka, a suburb of Delhi. Since I wanted to see Diwali in all its glory, I asked people where I should go and they said that Delhi was the place to be. So, to Kunnal's house I went. Kunnal and his friend, one Suchit Sharma, picked me up from Maple Heights around 5pm. We stopped at a small market in Dwarka and after withdrawing some firecracker cash, we joined a mob of people to purchase some firecrackers for our night of explosive fun. I spent about 2,000 Rs on an assortment of crackers including sparklers, bombs, rockets, chakris. In hindsight, I overpaid for the crackers by about 500 Rs. I still have a lot to learn about negotiating. One of the great things about the fire cracker boxes are all the pretty women the manufactuers put on the covers. They sure know how to market to young males (like myself)!

After picking up the crackers, we proceeded to Kunnal's house. While we were driving there, we dodged mischeviously placed bombs on the side of the road. Every now and then, we screeched to a halt when a bomb was directly in front of us. Finally, we reached Kunnal's house and we breathed a sigh of relief that the car was still intact. Before we could engage in some cracker bursting ourselves, we needed to perform the traditional Diwali pooja. Incidentally, this was the first time I had witnessed a Panjabi style Pooja. It was different from the kind of poojas I have seen, which have more chanting (and smoke in your eyes). Here, since Kunnal's father is a musician, the family sang songs while Kunnal's father kept the beat on some pots. It was a very entertaining pooja. Unfortunately I didn't know any of the songs. During the pooja, many of Kunnal's family and friends stopped by to join the pooja. We had a full house before not long. The pooja was dotted by the sounds of fire crackers going off outside - I found this very amusing. This was clearly not meant to be a somber pooja!

After the pooja, it was time for the fun to begin. We armed ourselves with 2,000 Rs worth of firecrackers and set off. We met scores and scores of Kunnal's friends outside. We even took a ride on Suchit's heavy duty bike - a powerful bike known as a Bullet. We cruised around the narrow streets of Dwarka and once again dodged flying firecrackers. Only this time, it was more dangerous since 3 of us were riding helmetless (shame on us) on an exposed bike. Despite our existing firecrackers, we felt we needed more fire power. We purchased my favorite - flower pots and some more rockets. I also remember an abandoned house on the corner which I was sure would be blown to pieces given that it was the favorite spot for bombs. It's a relatively safe place to plant bombs since it's away from cars and people know to proceed cautiously at this spot.

After the bike ride, we set off by foot to wish a happy Diwali to Kunnal's friends and relatives. Each time we went to someone's house, we were graciously invited in and offered sweets, snacks (including Madrasi mixture, which is as familiar to me as apple pie), and drinks. We must have visited about 10 such houses. After these visits, I must have had enough food to equal a normal dinner. And after one such visit, as we were leaving the house, Suchit lit a cracker, I think it was a Bullet Bomb, near the bike. I thought I was far enough away, but alas I was not. As I was talking to Kunnal, a burning piece of the cracker landed on my foot. Unfortunately, I wasn't wearing closed shoes. I was wearing my sandals, with socks. Before I knew it, the piece of the cracker had burned a hole in my sock and burned my foot!! Can you believe that? It was actually quite painful. The scar is still there. I'm starting to realize that injuries to your feet tend to cause long term scars (like those from my mosquito bites early in the trip, which are still there).

The rest of the night was unreal. Jasvir said it best. I just couldn't find the words to describe what it's like to experience Diwali in a traditional North Indian town. Quite simply, it's like a video game. It's like a game like Contra, Doom, Unreal, etc. In the dead of night your visibility is not more than 10 meters because all you see a mixture of dust and smoke. As you're driving in your car there are rockets flying everywhere. It's every man for himself. All of a sudden, there are loud booms and flashes of light. It's a very festive war zone. There are no rules, except the ones you chose to follow. For example, if you do plant a bomb, tell the traffic to stop so their cars don't explode when the cracker bursts in the fuel tank. One of my most memorable scenes was driving in Kunnal's SUV to a neighboring town to wish Nitin (another colleague) a happy Diwali. We were as usual dodging rockets, blasting one of my favorite songs, Chak De India, in the car. I have never felt so much like the hero in a video game.

And thanks to Kunnal's family's political connections, we were even more above the law than usual. While the cracker bursting is officially supposed to stop at 10pm, we launched crackers until much later. As we were driving back to Kunnal's house, we saw Kunnal's friends again. There were in a mood to party. We parked the car, popped the trunk, and lo and behold, there were speakers. We blasted some Panjabi music and danced right there in the streets for a good 10 minutes. Only in India.

We came home around midnight, and finally ate dinner. Exhausted, we went to sleep. The next day, we woke up around 12pm and had a leisurely lunch. As is customary in this town, the poor people from a neighboring village came to perform their traditional dance on the day after Diwali. They are trying to raise money to build a temple in their village. Seems like a good cause to me. It is said that if you give money to these folks, whatever you wish for will come true. We'll see if that happens for me. In any case, this was a Diwali for the ages.