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Monday, December 11, 2006

Culture #2: Challenging Expectations

I sit here writing on the roof of my building, a rare luxury back home. I really think all building should have access to the roof. It is a place to relax, a place to suntan perhaps and a place to barbeque. It is a place to grow vegetables. Here though, there is no BBQ, no garden, no deck chairs, not even any drying laundry although there is a tired looking line. There is just some wiring, some sort of piping snaking around the space and me. It is a place to be outside though, to feel the air and to look out over my home on a lazy Sunday.

There is a nice warm breeze and the traffic noise is nicely muted. The early morning rain has cleaned the air some, but it looks like it is clearing off. There are quite a few people on their roofs, there a group of friends hanging and chatting, there a women hanging her laundry, there a man puttering about something or other. The construction across the street continues unabated despite it being Sunday, but since they appear to building it at the pace of glaciers, I suppose they cannot afford the time off. That is something odd I’ve noticed: I’ve seen many buildings being build in my trips across the city and have seen many piles of dirt, sand, bricks and cement being hauled from the outside to the inside, one load at a time, carried on the head, but I have never seen anyone ever using those materials. Not once have I passed to see someone building a wall, or a stair or a door. Do they only do those at night? Do aliens come and do it, using the Indians simply to provide them the tools? I don’t know! It is one of those mysteries of mysteries they don’t dare mention in the guidebooks lest is scare the tourists.

Another building across the street has a lovely garden. Wish I was sitting there. I suppose I could just walk over and walk up; it is quite likely that the day watchman wouldn’t give me any hassle if I nodded at him and looked I was meant to be there.

I have found that I can get away with a lot by being a foreigner. I am not sure whether it is the relative rareness in Chennai or a vestige of colonialism or simply because they assume all foreigners are very wealthy and therefore require special treatment. Regardless of the reason, without asking or pressing, I find myself getting special treatment. It can sometimes be quite funny: when visiting the state government offices the other week to talk to one of the ministries about our project, the security at the gate did not want to frisk me, despite having padded down every entrant in front. I was just ushered inside almost apologetically or perhaps embarrassedly. Or another example: I went to see this excellent Korean cultural performance. My housemates had gotten me a ticket. I was meeting them there direct from work. I was supposed to meet them out front, but they weren’t there. Not knowing yet they had simply been delayed, I figured there must be a lobby inside, and they would be there instead. I joined the line of people, walked inside the theatre. My housemates were surprised to arrive to find me already seated with fine seats, without a ticket. Not that this always happens of course. Most people don’t particularly gawk, stare, bother or otherwise treat me special. Mostly I am just ignored as people go through their day, which suits me fine.

Switching topics, last night reminded me that you are always challenged to shed your assumptions when you visit another place and that is a warm, good feeling. So last night my housemates had a good friend over and invited the neighbours, a group of 5 boys, over for a few drinks. It turned into a nice little house party. Talk was loud, the music cycled through various rock, pop and dance tunes. The coffee table was moved out of the way and some dancing was had. Fun for all. It was nice to see how the locals let loose and to get to know my housemates better. Nothing particularly revelatory here. But then John puts on some Iron Maiden and Dream Theatre and he and his friend (a girl) start singing emphatically along. It turns out she and John are Metal Heads. Of course I really shouldn’t have been so shocked. After all, why wouldn’t there be Indians who grew up banging to heavy metal, wearing black T-shirts with blood-and-thorn laden album logos on it and doing latent neck damage by swinging their hair about. It’s just that that is not an image we’ve ever been shown of India and certainly not part of their cultural export of the likes of yoga, meditation or Bollywood. Now in my defence, John no longer looks like a Rocker, being clean cut, generally presentable and harbouring no obvious tendencies towards drawing pentagram symbols on the walls. But he says he used to have hair down his back, be a drummer in a band and has a complete collection of all the metal albums of the 80’s. I revel in the discovery, like I’ve learned a secret side to India, and for the simple fun we are having and at the end of the night go to bed smiling.

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