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Monday, February 26, 2007

Culture #8: The Universality of Whining About The Weather

It has just been proven! We are all connected in harmony and common bond because I have discovered at least one truly universal trait common to every human and culture on the planet: we all whine and complain about the weather.

That’s right, we all think we are tough, we like to pretend, but deep down, most of us are soft, softer than we like to believe. Canadians are known (or self-imaged) to be able to handle the cold. And to some degree, that is of course true. There is some physical and psychological adaptation. We can and will tolerate eyeball hurting chill and bitter, biting wind...but only if we have to. And more importantly, that does not stop us from complaining about it frequently and loudly.

Same as with India. The myth is broken. Oh sure, they will adjust to 45 degrees C in the shade. They will toil in it. They will tolerate it. But India, like Canada has a constitutionally guaranteed freedom of speech and despite the occasional debate on politics, economics or inequities, they mostly use that freedom on a day-to-day level, like we all do, to bitch about the weather (and pop stars, naturally). Last week was the first real jump in temperature and humidity here, back up to sticky and draining heat and a portent of the rapidly approaching summer swelter. And I was amazed to find my colleagues were the first to mention how hot it was getting, how uncomfortable, how miserable a portent it was. I kept thinking, “aren’t you used to this though?” Ah, but humans have fickle short memories and although it might have been as hot last year, bodies and minds forget and resent being reminded.

I think it is worse with city dwellers too. We’ve all gotten used to our central heat and our aircon. We’ve gotten used to being able to turn the weather off when we don’t like it and so complain when we’re forced to confront it by (gasp!) going outside to get lunch or not having an a/c car waiting running at the foot of the door.

Forget the GDP or the Human Development Index. For a clear measure of a region’s development progress, we should start tracking the WWI, the Weather Whininess Index.

Culture #7: The personal touch

While business and particularly government here is excessively bureaucratic, the flipside of it is the personal touch. I’ve come to really value the relationship that having a real person to deal with brings and notice how much it is often missing back home, traded for efficiency and consistency.

Each morning my commute starts by heading around the corner to the nearest auto stand, a spot, unmarked, where a group of auto-rickshaws will congregate. I always go to this one. As usual, my regular auto drivers are lounging in the backs of one, shooting the shit. One reads the paper. They grin and wave as I approach. I really like that they do that, but sometimes have to remember in my morning fuzziness to not get distracted by their jovialness that like following sirens I cross the street without watching for traffic. I have on occasion gotten my elbows brushed over-optimistic motorcyclists. I smile and offer a “good morning” back and hop in the back of the auto they indicate. I do really like have a group of regular guys for my morning commute. I don’t have to bargain with them or explain where I’m going. They’re happy for the regular business and are waiting there for me every morning. Not being a morning person, I appreciate anything that makes my day a little easier before the morning chai has shaken the cobwebs from my head. There are 5 or 6 of them. Each morning they’ll usher me into one auto or another although I cannot figure out how they decide amongst themselves who it will be. Given the usual struggle of avoiding getting taken advantage of and the general pain in the ass of most auto drivers, you can’t imagine just how much a treat this is to have. If only I could find a way to get the same thing home, but the auto stand nearest my work are ridiculously over-priced so none of us use them.

The best example of the personal touch though and a mainstay of Indian life is undoubtedly the Wallah (or sometimes “Walla”). A wallah is basically business-person without a permanent address, a peddler – service that comes to you! Some may have semi-permanent counters erected on sidewalks and street corners (one of the many reasons pedestrians are forced on the streets), many have mobile carts or simply bikes they push around the streets singing their wares in a variety of distinctive cries. There are wallahs for everything. You need your knives sharpened, wait for the Knife Sharpening Wallah to come by. There are Soup Wallahs. There are Flower Wallahs. There are Nut Wallahs who tine their spoons against their roasting woks. There are Snack Wallahs. There are Ironing Wallahs (a particular joy). Of course, the pre-eminent of all are the Chai Wallahs, available at nearly every corner serving sweet, milky tea or coffee. Also of note are the Sweet Wallahs and Betel Nut Wallahs, who create handed-down recipes for concoctions that have people loyally travelling for miles to frequent, and the Mumbai Tiffin Wallahs, who have actually received a 6-Sigma Quality rating for providing meals to Mumbai workers for moving 175,000 of packaged meals cooked at home in the suburbs to their owner’s urban offices each day (while only misplacing one in 6 million, astounding considering the vast majority are illiterate).

The wallah forms part of a rich streetscape of small-scale shops, stands, carts and counters forming a tapestry of formal and informal commerce. Their prevalence and messiness along most any street without 4 lanes of traffic (and even most of the ones with) is one of the most distinctive things you see when you arrive here, but also one of those that most quick fades in the background of normalcy. You get used to the idea that if you want it, it is available from a host of tiny places nearby or if you’re a homemaker, you can usually simply wait for it to come to your door. It strongly contrasts to the Mall and Big Box direction we’ve gone and convinced the rest of the world to follow: the convenience of getting everything in one place…once you drive the 45 minutes to get there of course.

Of course there are many parallels between cultures too, similar ideas just simply wrapped a little different in the West. I am of course used to already being able to get my coffee on any street corner in Vancouver (and about a dozen placed between ‘cause God forbid we have to walk all the way to a corner!). I have pangs of loss for what I could call Vancouver’s “Sushi Wallahs”. There are roast chestnut vendors at Christmas and the venerable hot dog vendors famously revered in New York. And of course we’re all familiar from childhood with that hallowed of wallah: the ice cream vendor, whose tinkling song beckons like the Pied Piper from down the street. Mmmnn, ice cream…

Extending the concept of the Wallah even further and a shade of the current class struggle, is the ability to send people on errands to accomplish those things you can’t get at your doorstep. It is very common and completely acceptable to grab your neighbourhood wallah, a kid loitering about, the building watchman, an auto driver, or most anyone and send them on an errand for some small fee. And they will reliably return with the item and your change. You have to pay your cell phone bill? You ran out of milk and are in the middle of preparing for a dinner party? You have to mail something? You want train tickets, but don’t want to wait in the hours-long queue? Send someone on the errand in your place. No one thinks twice about it. The ironing wallahs pick up and drop off our clothes to the door. A young man from the chai wallah down the street gets, fills and returns a thermos of tea for the office twice a day. My housemate had a 10kg bag of rice delivered to the door of our flat late yesterday (Sunday) night.

The concept of service is deeply ingrained in the culture and going the extra mile for the customer, of the personal commitment and connection, pervades everything. The psychology of it is very complicated as it is wrapped up in the ideas of negotiation and flexibility – that anything here is available at a price; of class dominance and the historical acceptance of servitude; of the vast supply of people needing jobs – any job – and of the concepts of extended family and community which although in flux, are still stronger than in most Western regions. It can also blur into the spectre of corruption. But at the heart, leaving aside the tricky corruption issue for the moment, it is really refreshing to have business and commerce be human interactions again. Every service and transaction has a face, a person and a chain of people being supported. It is about the relationship. And it is about service. It is about business meeting your needs, your actual, real needs, not those they project on you, rather than the other way around. What a novel concept! It is at times shockingly inefficient. But it is shockingly refreshing.

Ask yourself: you’re busy, you’re working, you want an electrician or a TV cable install or a new account at the bank and what do you want, to sit around all day, taking a half-day, then a full-day off work to wait for the person to show up? No of course not. What you clearly and obviously want is for someone to come to you and arrive when you want. Here they do. If you need a service or product, people will come to your home or your office and drop it off. They will meet you after hours at your home at 10pm or come to your office at 2pm.

And what is even more remarkable is that it is not just the little independent contractors who will do it. The concept is ingrained right up the chain. The bank manager was over at the office the other day to talk about my boss’s business accounts rather than demanding to be met at the branch. When I bought my cell phone, the sales guy came to my house after (on a Sunday night) on his way home to take a digital photo of me for the connection to be set up the next morning. He then came by my office the next day for me to sign the final papers. And he gave me his cell phone number so when Airtel inevitably screwed up my account, I could call him to fight that battle for me and “just fix it”. This of course is also a necessity born of India’s other remarkable ability to build the most phenomenally inefficient, complex and mind-bogglingly impersonal bureaucracies yet invented. So you need the counter balance of an array of helpers, runners and queue-ers to possibly make it through.

The burning question for India now is will it lose this vibrant street-level personal experience as they drive to modernize and adopt Western culture of malls and glitzy stores with large advertising budgets? Can they afford to given their vast population? Will India be the same without remaining a little messy and colourful? That remains a very interesting question.

Awww, our office chai wallah, just came up with a bag of fresh banana chips back from Kerala for my colleague Hema, just to be nice because she once talked about liking them. Fuck McDonald’s. Now that’s service with a smile.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Life in Chennai #7: "The Usual"

India - Sights & Culture - 013 - Masala Dosa"The Usual" for lunch: masala dosa. Mmnnn...

I've put a whole bunch of new stuff up today. What can I say, it's a slow day at work so I'm getting articles cleaned up and posted...

Traffic #6: Another smatterings of mini-stories

The wine shop has a painted portrait of Pierce Brosnan on its sign. Or at least, it looks like it is of him. I can’t be sure as it is not a particularly good painting. It could be of some Indian man who looks like Pierce Brosnan. Either one is possible here. Signs can have all sorts of seemingly random references, heroes and favourite movie stars featured on them. No way of really knowing. Gives me 3 minutes of levity though.

"Change? Change?" The auto driver asks. This is one of those y/n questions that is actually impossible to answer with a yes or a no because the question could indicate either. Does a yes mean yes, I have change or yes, I need change...

I decide to try "no". [I don’t need to get change] He answers, "change, no?" Hmmn, of course, that clears it right up...

I go for a "yes?" As you might be anticipating, he answers, "change, yes?"

I go back to "no" figuring that that was closer.

...This goes back and forth about 4 or 5 times before we’re sure we’re saying the same thing and he knows, no, no, I don’t need any change. :-)

Here is another little funny traffic story. So I’m in an auto on the way home and the driver keeps looking back at me, checking me out. I’m starting to get annoyed. What the hell is he looking at? ...Then it hits me – oh, he’s not looking at me, he’s actually using his rear view mirrors. Never seen someone here do that before. Freak.

Funny thing though: here, the practice of using his mirrors doesn’t necessarily imply he is a better, safer driver as proven when he nearly heads-on into a motorbike that appears coming the wrong way from around a bus in front of us. Taking your eyes off the chaos in front can lead to trouble. Most cars, if they have them at all, have their side mirrors tucked in flat. They are not using them anyway and out their just going to quickly get scratches or knocked off.

So the stereotype of Asian drivers not using their mirrors is not only true here, it is a vital skill, highly adapted to the very different traffic rules here. When anything can happen in front and to your side, you don’t have time to consider what is behind and the rules of the road are clear anyway: if they are behind, they have to give way.

So perhaps I should have smacked my auto driver for looking back after all...

It took me a long time to be able to follow my route to and from work and know where I was going. I have an excellent sense of direction, but I have come to realise that almost no road in Chennai goes straight, very few intersections meet at right angles or with only two streets meeting at a time (one of the reasons perhaps they opt for the flyway system to simply bypass the chaos and since most vehicles will cheat on traffic circles) and none of the main roads go anywhere useful. So you end up weaving through various streets, backtracking around one-way segments, doing large loops to bypass perpetually congested areas and taking a lot of twists and bends. This combined with the various alleys and shortcuts many autos use and it took me quite a while to sort out. Even consulting a map, I was like, "Oh, that is my route. That’s fucked up!"

I have also come to realise that I have a very skewed view and mental picture of many of the streets. I know my route by billboard and sign (a real problem when they change the billboards). I know the route by traffic circle and stop lights (because their flexible usages never fail to amuse me). I know it by wallahs and construction zones passed at the side of the road (the construction goes at such a slow pace it turns out to be a reasonably permanent marker). I recently got out of an auto in a region I don’t normally stop at and looking up, realised how nice the architecture of the buildings were. I had not idea. In fact, I rarely even know whether a building is 1 storey or 6. I only know what I can see from beneath the overhung awning roof of the auto: a fast, blurred and shaky view of the gritty and snaking ground level.

Life in Chennai #6: A Brief Tale...

Blogger wouldn't let me put the whole title in to its format, so here it is in full:

Life in Chennai #6: The Tragic Yet Uplifting Tale of the Gerbera Daisies and The Fabulous Plan That Did Not Have Its Intended Results But Was Better Than The Previous Two And At Its Conclusion Proved That Good Stories Are Made of Life’s Experiences

Since I usually write so prolifically, I thought I’d try something different and pare my recent experience with romance down to the basic elements of the male mind…

I am nervous.

Flowers are coming.

Flowers are coming to my work.

They are not for me.

They are for girl sitting across from me.

I like girl.

I am nervous about getting flowers secret-like so I can give flowers to girl across from me.

Flowers come. I get them secret-like. I am happy I get them secret-like.

Plan good.

Flowers are pretty. Girl is pretty.

I give them to girl at lunch.

She likes flowers, but does not want date.

I am sad.

But I am happy I try.

Flowers and girl are still pretty.

The End.

Ha! I kill myself sometimes. I had fun writing that one. Thought you’d enjoy too... ;-)

Friday, February 23, 2007

Traffic #7: Bypass the Flyways

India - Symbols & Images - 004 - Ads own the cityWe pass another flyway under construction. There is a big set going up by the airport, towers of scaffolding rising a couple storeys around the street like looming skeletons, half-completed trenches and the ever-present piles of debris and detritus placed in random and inconvenient locations in the road.

Flyways, raised sections of road that arch over intersections, are Chennai’s solution (and apparently only solution) to traffic congestion. Or at least that appears to be the idea. I can’t say I see them helping. I really would like to have someone explain the idea, the sales pitch to me. How do they improve traffic flow? Why are they the best chosen solution? I really want to get this other side, because frankly, they don’t make any sense to me.

India - Sights & Culture - 011 - Flyway 1Building anything raised, a giant pile of precision concrete (or let’s just hope and assume it is precision) is extremely costly compared to a road built on the ground. They darken and ruin the space underneath, creating dingy, run down, seedy areas. Who wants to live or work under an overpass? Considering these are usually built over major intersections, which usually means bustling and vibrant ones, that seems very damaging. And despite being raise, they still really cut a street in two, the same as a highway does because the up ramp and down ramp segments do not allow for pedestrian or vehicle traffic crossing underneath. There are a dozen areas around where I work where you have to walk a long way to get around or under a flyway. And of course crossing a flyway area, a natural speed-up zone, is even scarier than usual. Yet for all these problems, they seem only marginally useful for traffic flow because they are only short, disconnected segments. Unlike a proper highway, you only get high-speed, no-intersection road for 100m (and most of the autos, trucks, carts and cows cannot take advantage of the speed up the hill anyway). After the flyway, the next intersection is slow, and the next after that. Plus they often slow down the intersecting streets and for traffic wanting to exit to turn right or left rather than going over the overpass. What a mess!

India - Sights & Culture - 012 - Flyway 2One solution is to connect the flyways into a continuous road, but if you’re going to connect them all, then why not have just built a dedicated highway in the first place? It has got to be cheaper, faster to build and in the long run better. Or better yet, since you are putting the damn pillars up everywhere, why not just build a raised mass transit system and leave the cars to the regular streets below (without all the up-ramp and down-ramp issues)? I shake my head. For a city of 7+ million and growing, and a growing class of families wanting cars, they sure are limping along in infrastructure and doing it half-assed. They are spending a fortune building giant concrete pylons and yet the rest of the roads have more holes than a cheese grater (and feels about the same as one would expect driving over one).

There's my little traffic rant of the week.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Life in Chennai #5: The anatomy of a weekend

So much of what I think and experience is mundane and most certainly uninteresting to anyone, however since it is so much of a part of life and since I’m filling pages of it in my journal, I thought I might as well share a little segment of memorable experiences and thoughts over a weekend. It is Saturday and I’m at work as usual, so the thought appeals to me. This is a test of sorts: can I spin a tale that is interesting and engaging to read despite being about nothing really interesting or insightful? Editing it myself, I’m thinking the answer is no, no I can’t. And you know, that’s OK. But it’s written now. So enjoy. And if you’re disgruntled at the end, well here’s an IOU from me for 10 minutes of your life back: put down that donut, coffee or cigarette! There, now we’re square again. ;-)

Saturday morning
It is a day of contradictions. On one hand I am feeling energized, passionate and excited, on the other, I feel loss and disappointment – a funny pair to combine. The entire office has convened today to talk and brainstorm about sustainable development, corporate social responsibility and the future of the non-profit arm of our little team and my little world and work, the Institute for Sustainable Development and Research. I like visioning. I like thinking about what development and sustainability means and really like the chance to play with the many ideas I’ve been rolling around in my head in the past couple months, mostly in isolation. I like that Pooja, the other valiant non-profit employee, and I share and support each other’s views on what sustainable development and CSR are and aren’t, their potentials and their realities. But I don’t like that my CEO does not share similar views, or rather, we don’t share his. I had given thought that there might be a place for me here with this agency after my contract. The idea of taking an organisation that is still mostly virtual and a glimmer of hope into a real agency of bricks and people and programs really appeals to me. But it is not here. It became clear over the course of the day, really for the first time, where my CEO wants to take the organisation and that he has a different vision and a different approach to how to get there. He views development and CSR through a different lens. It is not that one is right and one wrong, but the two are irreconcilable. It is my CEO’s dream and passion to start this organisation and take it this direction. And I have my own dreams I am following. I cannot let mine down to join his. In the long run, that is of course OK. This step will lead to another and it was never meant to be an end. But today I am disappointed there is no Easter Bunny.

Saturday afternoon
It is a day of contradictions. On one hand I am feeling the most distance to my boss. On the other, I feel the closest bond with the other staff. Most of us have convened impromptu in the adjoining lunch room for coffee and it has turned into a frank discussion. I understand better than ever before, the motivations and perspectives of my colleagues about the company, its strengths and weaknesses, about who they are and where they come from, about what they want and where they want to go. It is good. They are good people. I wish they were all staying. I wish I was. We’re not. Oh well, there is always email and people to visit next time I pass through.

Saturday evening
I’m heading out and I put my socks back on. I hate socks. I’ve come to realise this. I have to wear nice shoes to work. And even on Saturdays when I feel justified in dressing down and coming in flip flops, I still can't because if I want to meet friends at a restaurant or clubs right from work, they require close-toed shoes. So I end up having to wear socks most all the time. It is a funny thing to develop an aversion to I know – it is not like I didn’t wear socks every day for most of the year every year since running around barefoot as a kid – but there it is. I feel like it is completely unfair that I’ve come 12,000 km to a tropical country where most people go open-toed or even barefoot and I still have to put on damn socks. And I’m volunteering, which is of course completely irrelevant to any issue of sock waering and I know that, but I childishly use it anyway to comfort myself in my silent tirade. I also know the hatred of socks pins me into the hippie, Birkenstock-wearing camp, so don’t say it. Let me have my little rant. India with socks. What is world coming to? Thankfully women can still get away with those cute flip flops and strappy heels. ;-)

Saturday night
I’ve just stepped into another world. It is still Chennai, the sometimes-cheesy mix of Bollywood pop hits in the rotation proves that, but where did all these white people come from? My friend Preiya has invited me to join her and her colleagues out for drinks and dancing, but I had no idea how many of them there were. All Canadians, many are apparently here for training with a few like Preiya here on long-term contracts. There are like 20 of them! I haven’t seen so many foreigners in one space in months. It turns into a great night, which is good because after the day, I need to blow off some steam and clear my head. I find solace in a group that is amazing open, welcoming and unpretentious, confirming my faith in the niceness of Canadians. I find momentary transcendence taking Eminem’s advice and losing myself in the music (see previous post). I find smiles and rejuvenation, drinks, dancing and laughs.

Saturday night, late
I am lazily ensconced in a hotel room with the remnants of the night’s revellers. I am happy with the way the night is drifting on. I am quite happy with the treat of a Canadian Rye and coke, a liquor one cannot get here. But I realise that my French sucks. Those remaining are mostly French Canadian or bilingual and the conversation has switched completely to French. I am sad to discover how much I’ve lost. I’m only following about half. But oh well, that’s OK, it is also 5am and I’ll admit I’m quite fuzzy so in my defence, I’m not following any language particularly well. But being content and comfortable, I most tune out and chill with them until dawn. I’ve always enjoyed greeting the sun sitting around with a group of friends, some tunes and conversation. That I can’t follow all of this one is immaterial. Time to go home though and sweet sleep. And at least by waiting until morning, I’ve missed the auto driver’s exploitive “night time” fare hikes.

Sunday afternoon
I’m up and moving. I’m down the street picking up a Pepsi and a bar of chocolate. It’s that kind of day. As I wander down, my auto wallah guys on the corner wave. I wave back and then realise that that means I’ve just walked right past the shop I was heading for. Oh, it really is that kind of day. Since I’m going this way anyway now (and now feel slightly sheepish), I continue for awhile, enjoying the movement and back lost in thought, before circling back to the desired purveyor of sugary consolations. Actually, truth be told, it is really Coke and chocolate that I crave, but the shop doesn’t have Coke, so I’m forced to compromise on my choice of salve. He doesn’t give me trouble for taking home the glass bottle, if I promise to return it. I’m grateful as I only have limited compromises in me today. I wander back home. The neighbour boys are watching football on our TV and look at me a bit perplexed over how long I was gone to simply drop down to the shops. Good thing they hadn’t wanted anything. I shrug and don’t explain. These things happen. OK, well they happen to me at any rate. Time is a very gossamer commodity and I don’t know what I do with it half the time. I really wish it was like sands through the hourglass (spot the reference) that you could hold and count although perhaps that wouldn’t help any more than my watch. Some have called me a dreamer. They’re being really nice. And you’re being really nice for reading this which has to be one of the most frenetic and random posts yet. Of course bars are meant to be topped, so stay tuned… ;-)

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Culture # 6: Shifting Values and Finding Love

There is much, much to say about the complexities of how many developing nations are interacting with the still-dominating cultural export of Western nations, the US more than any other, about people “aping” the West, rejecting it, merging and blurring it into something new. It is all very rich and takes a great deal of finesse to wade into. I do not have that finesse so I’ll comment only on a couple specific areas on the matter of love and relationships that have caught my attention while being here.

You can’t miss it: billboards are adorned with hearts, newspapers advertise restaurants and dating sites and the pressure is on for young people to have a date tonight. Yes, India has adopted that most pressured and commercial of holidays: Valentine’s Day. It is a day for couples to canoodle, restaurants to be booked solid and stuff to be bought and given in an assortment of heart-shaped packaging. For a country where the dominant culture and tradition frowns on public displays of affection, where marriages partners are chosen by parents and dating is still often a secretive thing, this is quite the shift. But India is changing. And fast.

How I interpret this particular change is a challenging one. Celebrating this is very new. People hear can clearly demark that as recently as 5 years ago, this was a different place. Like my visit to China, being here now, in what is so obviously a transition is very interesting – good to see the places now because tomorrow they will be different and the next, different again.

To put it simply, I believe it is fair to say that the youth are in the midst of a revolt against the traditional and restrictive values of their parents and culture. They are fast joining the new and now global fast-paced, interconnected and free culture. My views and understanding of this new culture are still very much in flux, but I like that as each country joins the globalized crowd, they bring their own cultural elements and particular style to it. What I don’t always like is that the basis and I believe still the vast majority of the global cultural values are imported directly from the lead of the West. But regardless of where it comes from and whether it is entirely a good thing, it is happening everywhere. In India, in matters of relationships, there is a drive to more freedom from parental control, freedom to choose partners based on love (or attraction or whatever criteria suits your fancy) and freedom to go out dating to movies, malls, coffee houses and fast food joints. Ah, the joys of modern society. Life as I’m used to it back home is being built here fully and completely. There is a new food court and hang-out place up by the university IIT’s Madras campus. It could be the University of Toronto: KFC, chicken burgers (pretty good ones actually), young people chatting wirelessly on laptops or cell phone and mixed groups of guys and girls in jeans and t-shirts (well, at least more than elsewhere in Chennai). Of course, I personally think that freedom to choose is a good value and particularly the independence and empowerment of women that goes along with it, but recognize the shake-up it is inflicting on the culture as it runs through.

The other side of the holiday though, the dark side if I may dramatize, is the blatant and psychologically manipulative commercialism that comes with Valentine’s Day. India’s youth may be adopting Valentine’s Day as a rallying cry for their pre-existing drive to new freedoms, but there can be no doubt that the charge is being led by the usual glut of billboards, ads and stuff to buy. There are the usual chocolates and flowers, cards and calls, but as with North America, everyone and their brother is getting into the act regardless of their obvious link with romance. Cell phone companies advertise special ring tones and deals on new handsets, malls try to draw customers and couples to shop more and even financial institutions are getting into it, all the usual suspects of enterprising advertisers trying to convince us that love and romance somehow connects to buying stuff. They are trying of course to make it another generic gift-giving holiday. It is no longer just diamonds and flowers (although those are both in major force in the billboard rotation), but giving anything to express one’s affection. What a sham. And a shame.

But commercialism seems here to stay and India has adopted it whole-heartedly so one must expect them to discover for themselves the selling power of the heart. Indians are quickly joining the rest of us in learning to be neurotic about being single today, about professing your love through gifts and being implicitly allowed to ignore it the other 364 days.

I came across this article this morning on the apparent shift in China towards the Western tanned look as a mark of beauty. While there is still a strong tradition of valuing paleness, in some circles tanning is coming into vogue. I can appreciate this; when I was there I recall the glut of whitening and SPF creams (I noticed because I found it very challenging to find regular SPF sun-block lotion before venturing into UV-zapping Tibet) focused clearly and strongly at the culture’s prizing of pale, flawless skin. But perhaps things are shifting in the urban areas. That is what the article says. Interesting change.

If that is a real shift however, it contrasts with India’s continuing obsession with fairness. It is remarkable in its pervasiveness here: billboards and radio, TV and print ads, creams and lotions and treatments all promoting products that fill India’s fetish for fairness. And both women and men are subject to this desire.

This can be seen most dramatically in the classifieds. The most popular personal classified section here is not dating ones, but marriage ones. They may highlight homemaking skills, they usually highlight degrees granted (Indian are very highly educated, partly due to its commoditisation as a criterion for marriage selection, but that is the subject of a whole other article), but nearly every ad will highlight how fair (light-skinned, not good in disputes) the person is. And as I have been told, there is an unsurprising fudging of just how fair a person is. There is no celebration of dark, brown, mocha or chocolate. It is "fair" or that middle ground, "wheatish". And if you aren’t fair enough or can’t lie about it sufficiently, the transnational beauty and skin corporations have happily filled that need. I’m sure you can imagine the ads – just watch one of the many anti-wrinkle ones we get (although those are of course here to) and replace "reduces visible signs of wrinkles within 7 days" to "improves fairness 2 shades within 7 days". In fact, just imagine the teeth whitening ads: the script is identical, with the same “it’ll make you popular” message.

Here are a few real examples for ya (I’ve x’ed out the names and numbers for obvious reasons of privacy):
FATHER Nxxxx - Mother Gxxxx, invite alliance for their son B.E., MS-US (DoB 30-06-80) employed in Singapore seeks fair, smart, well educated bride. Contact: xxxx
Axxxxx AFFLUENT very fair 32/165 MBA 30 Lakh per annum sub caste ok send BHP to Box No. xxxxx, THE HINDU, Chennai-600002
RC AD 25/164 M.Sc, Anna Univ NET qualified working Statistical Analyst MNC 2 lacs pa, wheatish beautiful seeks well settled groom from RC AD. Send BP. Ph xxxx

Unequivocally, this is one of the cultural elements of broad Indian culture I find most troubling and hard to accept. In a country of such rich diversity of shades and shapes, colours and creeds, that they would not lead the world in celebrating that is truly sad. They are a republic of many cultures, (mostly) tolerant of many languages and religions, a group that has agreed to get along together regardless of different histories and beliefs – but not in skin tone. And although I am very uninitiated in the subtlety of its effects through society, I have been told that skin tone can sometimes have implications on career and other success, not just in marriage opportunities. This is of course especially poignant in South India where the dominant skin tone is a dark chocolate or coffee shade. And of course coming from a country where a darker, rich tanned shade is seen as healthy and attractive, a little colour is a nice thing.

As a final short aside, the diamond solitaire ring is making in-roads to India as a necessary component of a marriage proposal, again driven purely by advertising and the desires of companies to sell and expand as opposed to any rebellion against traditional jewellery for innate reasons. The marketing campaigns to back this push are large and pervasive. All the expensive spots of TV and print media prominently display diamonds with all the usual emotional ties to love, commitment and desire.

I don’t claim to understand the Indian psyche in any depth or breadth, but these are three parts of love and life you cannot miss walking the streets today. I’d love comments and ideas on understanding these ones more.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Musing #5: Transcendence

There is good music playing, a hard, fluid beat. I have a rare moment when I’ve got enough space to move, to really move. Down at the floor, the lights play a seductive, repetitive pattern. I can feel the music starting to gel to something tactile and the people to fade to mist. I breathe the music in, draw it down, I smile a small private smile and allow myself to let go, to lose myself in it. I draw in all my senses to within a circle I can reach with my outstretched hands and touch between my feet and head, DaVinci’s man. Everything else goes away. There is no sense of place, of time, of crowd, no thought, no love or hate, just me, the music and gravity holding me to the floor. It is just movement, pure movement. What defines these moments is that every sense is hooked directly to body without the intervening filtering, processing and worry of our over-busy brains. I am no longer thinking of moving, just moving because that is where my body is supposed to be next. It is a reminder that we are built to move, we are made to dance, to know the intimate thoughts of our fingertips and sinew. I love these moments, these rare glimpses of transcendence. People go to a lot of trouble and do a lot of drugs to experience this. I smile at the flit of thought before it too gets forced to the edge of the bubble. Some feel this narrowing in a sport, in meditation or in sex. Me, it’s easiest when I dance. I know that it is not a state I can remain in for long. These experiences are oh so short. Soon enough, 2, 3 minutes max, and the world will again intrude – a change of music, a bump from someone, a stray thought, a blinking loss of faith that flying is possible – and break this fragile state. I will come back to reality a quarter second out of sync and will rejoin my friends back on Earth, in this club, in this room in space and time. But for a blissful moment I am connected to everything and to nothing.


Kick. Step. Kick. Step. Ice Axe. Breathe. Kick. Step. Kick. Step. Ice Axe. Breathe.

Behind me trails a long chain of symmetrical boot-holes trails for 200m below, above only steep unbroken white. A single orange line reminds me that I am attached to three others repeating my motions below. The strong wind drowns out all but the sound of my own breath and the crunch of snow beneath my boots. I know there is a view to make one weep behind over my shoulder, but for the moment climbing is taking my total attention, every sense connected to my motions. There are no worries about pending office emails, of things I need to pick from the supermarket, of war or peace. There is nothing else, but ensuring each foot in the snow holds, the strong coalition of muscle and blood, and of a sharp, personal understanding of gravity and friction better than any physicist. I know the exact state of my muscles, blood circulation in my fingers and oxygen levels in my lungs. It feels like in this foreign world, we are so loosely bound that the 4 of us might float away like astronauts if we do not concentrate on holding ourselves to the surface. Here too in those moments of nothing and everything is transcendence and one of the reasons I keep coming back to climb in these vast temples.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Sidebar #1: The Real Shaolin Kung Fu

So I caught the latter half of this old Chinese-made documentary (
on the real Shaolin Monks and their Kung Fu school and it impressed me enough I wanted to share it. It was fascinating, not the least because they have been built into such a cultural icon and basis for about a bazillion movies, I didn’t really think the truth would be anything close to the hype. But it was incredible what was being show, not the least of which was a bunch of footage of 19 year-old Jet Li, pre-movie star, but already an unreal martial artist. It was very cool.

Their training regime is simply ridiculous. They showed shots of men standing up to being battered by logs (held by 10 men) in the abdomen, monks breaking standing bricks by slicing them sideways with 2 fingers, monks really doing that running up the wall thing. Many of the hundred things unbelievable looking we see now in movies and think have been spiced up by creative choreographers are actually practiced. All the swirling, super-fast fighting and weaponry moving so fast it blurs can actually be done without being sped up for camera.

A couple of the more impressive parts. At one point they show a guy breaking bottles with his hands and arms and the narrator explains that the palm style he is perfecting is very hard and involves strengthening the hand until even broken glass does no harm. The only way to train for this it is further explained is to strike dry wood beams all day. Sounds like loads of fun. Then they went into a segment where they showed the degrees the monks took to train, including not stopping training during sleep. They would sleep flat as a board between 2 pillars, one at the neck, the other the ankles with nothing in between. Others were shown similarly, but sleeping between 2 loops of rope, 5 feet off the floor (so another monk could sleep pretzelled underneath). Very few people could even hold themselves in that position, let alone rest – and sleep – for several hours!

But the most impressive of all was the old master who taught at the school. Coming back from hermitage to pass on his knowledge before he died, he was said to be a master at Qi Gong and Kung Fu to such a degree that he had virtual mastery of his mind, body, breathing and energy. They showed him standing there, this absolutely frail looking man, getting severely beaten with sticks without any discomfort or effect. He was 90 years old. Let me repeat that. He was 90 and withstanding an onslaught as if he was being whacked with straw. He doesn’t sleep at night, but goes into deep meditation sitting in a chair or on the floor. He hasn’t used a bed or lied down since he was 17. He could also still do the splits as part of his daily routines. But when the movie is all said and done, I will always retain the image in my mind of a 90 year old man holding himself in a handstand in perfect balance against a wall by a single finger on the floor. That perfect image of the potential and pure brilliance of the human body.

(Note: this is apparently such a hard task that he was the only one in the world at any age who could do it. They showed his star pupil managing it with 2 fingers, still a major accomplishment.)

Thought you’d find that cool.

Lots more info at:

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Culture #5: Adaptions to a Life Crowded

Life takes interesting directions when it is crammed together close. This, I observe, results in three connected cultural traits that dominate interpersonal interactions, traffic patterns, business service and life in general here: obliviousness to those around you, a prioritization on self-preservation and a lack of personal space.

A man is backing his motorcycle up. And that is what he is doing. That we are walking behind him at the time, that a truck is coming by down the narrow street, that anything else is going on is irrelevant. He is oblivious to all this. He is leaving and hence has to back his bike up to do so and so he does. What is important to capture is not that he backs his bike without looking behind, but rather that it never crosses his mind to do so nor would anyone expect him to.

The culture of obliviousness is a hard one to capture, but is likely instantly recognizable to one who has been here. Indians simply wander around in their own world. It is very like a whole population adapted to having ipods on high in their heads. The first thought is to what you are doing. How this affects and interacts with the world around you is a far distant second. Think of how you might back your motorcycle up if you lived on a farm and knew the driveway well. Think of how you wouldn’t look to make sure there was a gap in traffic or people crossing – there wouldn’t be. You’d just walk up and back it up. That is what Indians do everywhere here in all situations despite there very obviously being a hundred things going on around them. It seems to be, again like headphone use, to be a survival mechanism to block out the crush of life around you and retain some sanity. It is quite foreign. And then again, not.

Another example is how cars, but again let me use motorcycles because they interact more with pedestrians, turn corners. All vehicles here will initiate a corner before looking or slowing down, and like a NASCAR racer, will take the shortest available line, regardless of whether they are making a right or a left. This of course brings them directly across on-coming traffic. Whether there might be pedestrians crossing, people standing on the corner, a large hole in the street or an on-coming truck is secondary. This is one of the few things I am truly able to claim is universal in Chennai. I see this every single day a dozen times. It is turn and point first, eyes glues front, alter course as necessary second. And of course whether they alter course is depending on who is bigger and whether they can get away with it. As a pedestrian, you are expected to move, regardless of whether they honked in time or at all. I’ve seen hundreds of bikers brush by without even glancing my way, 1 foot to their side. I wasn’t there, only the route they wanted to take. It is like imminent peril is the only thing that will shake them of this sunny world they are driving in to take action to avoid it. Really funny and really strange.

I think this all stems from living in over-crowded spaces. I perceive it to be if you are polite and wait for the gaps, consider all around you, you’ll never move. Think of turning a corner in a car in downtown North America: regular downtown commuters eventually learn to be more aggressive and ignorant with pedestrians because on busy streets the stream doesn’t ever stop; there are never gaps. If you don’t push your way through (despite the dirty looks), you’ll be there until midnight. Well India is like that everywhere all the time and they've adapted to it on both sides. If a pedestrian gets cut off here, they don’t shake their fists. They probably don’t think of it one way or another. If that backing up motorcycle wheels himself out just when you were about to step into that place, you simply stop and walk around. Incidentally, you are also not expected to be submissive to the bike either. If you are able and quick enough to step around the back of him, forcing him to halt his progress, that is OK too.

I understand the basic idea, but I must admit the practicality of it in traffic situations sometimes defies my logic to understand. As an example of when it doesn’t make sense to me, take this scene I saw this morning. A single pedestrian is crossing the street and there is only one bike turning. He still just points the shortest path despite the fact that a simple look (and planning any driver in the West would do without thinking) would suggest that making a slightly wider or shorter curve would allow him to pass without slowing. But instead he does what he always does and has to stop short and make an awkward loop around the now stationary person who did not have enough warning to get out of the way. I understand having to purposely ignore courtesy and take an aggressive me-first stance, but I don’t yet fully grasp the psyche or advantage of why the lack of pre-planning. Funny.

We’re waiting to get on the bus. There’s quite a crowd of us (aka normal). The door opens and the crush begins, everyone struggling to get ahead. In front of me a young man squeezes in from the side ahead of an elderly woman. He’s followed by a couple more. The old woman does not indicate this to be bothering her. When going to the bank to cash a cheque from work, I’m at the teller counter when another man wanders up and waves his deposit slip in front too. What is notable is not that he felt no compunction to butt in, but that the teller takes it without batting an eye and both fully expect me not to bat one either. He could sneak in, so he did. If I did it back, he would not whine either.

This connects with the obliviousness and is an easier one to spot and one of the first adaptations a foreigner or traveller has to make when visiting Asia in general: Asians do not queue or line up. If you want to get anywhere, you have to be prepared to push, to butt in and to hold your ground. If you wait, say for example at the bank or at ticket counters, you will never be served, simple as that. People will keep pushing past and stepping in front. And moreover they will assume that since you are not pushing up, you must just be standing there and obviously not wanting to access service. The best tip I can give is to do it calmly, smiling, but firmly. It is not a battle or a scrum, but a slow flood through or up to whatever gate is there. (The best tip for tickets and the like is to hire someone to stand in line and get them for you).

My experience has been that China is worse for this than India is. In China it was even more blatant and everyone for themselves. In India at least they seem to retain a little of their courtesy and order, at least here where I've seen (perhaps as a vestige of British culture?). I have many crazy stories from China of people shoving right in front at ticket counters literally pushing money through the window inches in front of our outstretching hands, of lines as wide as they are long pushing into the train stations and of near riots trying to get onto a mountain gondola.

Personal Space
We’re being chased around the dance floor. I’m out with friends, dancing with Leslie and being westerners and therefore the most exciting thing around, we’re getting set on by a steady string of guys wanting to talk to us. Most want to be my close friend, many want to dance with Leslie. All talk to me first (the intricacies and interesting observations of male bonding, I’ll leave for another time). We allow some to join us dancing. But they dance with you right CLOSE! like you’re about to tango. Instinctively we take a step back, to clear a little space to move. He then guilelessly steps into it. We naturally step back again with the result that he slowly pushes us circling around the room as if we are indeed leading the tango backwards. It is quite funny actually, but totally inevitable. Everything in India is crowds. Standing in one spot people will push past, no room for simply brushing. Taking the bus, the train, a movie, any line is an exercise in keeping all arms and legs inside the moving crowd at all times. And this mentality of being so close you could lick the person becomes ingrained to where despite the couch or dance floor or street corner not being packed with people, those you are talking with will still stick close enough to be your co-joined twin.

There are a hundred little examples of one or more of these three. Restaurants will have cars and bikes parked cheek-to-jowl in front not leaving a corridor for the entrance and sometimes in fact being so tight as to make getting in at all hard. If you want a table at a busy restaurant, you have to hover protectively over a table nearly done. And in a restaurant, if you are not a table of 4, you will be seated (or expected to seat yourself) with strangers to fill all available seats. I like that last one actually as both efficient and a good way to meet people. Buses in India are like the clowns cramming in the Volkswagen: every available space floor to ceiling is taken up, like a sport-hump of humanity on wheels. So even if you’ve managed a seat on the bus, you’ve got 2 people leaning over you and 2 kids propped on the women beside you. I don't mind though myself: it is great people watching.

I’m sure I’m only scratching the surface. Ah, the joys of discovering other cultures and trying to reconcile them. Any insights, pass them on.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Life in Chennai #4: Getting antsy

I have had a serious lack of activity since being here, a combination of being busy and adapting to a new environment. I don’t really have a good excuse as I could run, join a gym or yoga – before work – but I simply hate mornings with a passion usually reserved only for people who kick puppies and steal candy from kids (those guilty only one of the two getting a stern disapproving glare). So I’ve been very sedative other than the occasional evening dancing. Hence I have been starting to go a bit stir-crazy, starting to climb the proverbial walls as it were...except that that is a very dangerous state for me to be in because well, I am a climber. Have climbing gear, have walls, am bored...

So we’re sitting around last Sunday, shooting the shit in the afternoon, me, my housemate Sonia, her in-laws and our neighbour David. David it turns out is locked out of his house. A few hours go by and he is still locked out. He drops into the kitchen, checking the balcony to see about getting out to his balcony next door as the door is open. He doesn’t go for it. But of course the idea intrigues me. “I’ll go”, I say. I’ve got the gear sitting here, gathering dust, why the hell not. Which is how 10 minutes later, geared up, I’m on belay clambering across the outside of the building. Truth be told, it was neither a long nor particularly challenging traverse: the hardest part was fighting to move aside the surprisingly firm palm tree in the middle and the belay and harness was definitely overkill, but since it was the 4th floor safety first! It was a great joy just to be moving again. Can’t just stop there – I’ve got the shoes on after all – so I do a second short climb up to the roof, again very basic, but a nice little stem for 3 moves before calling it quits. Anything more ambitious would require a full rope, peaking in people’s windows and the high likelihood of someone calling the police.

It turned into a nice diversion for a Sunday afternoon and amused the whole group for a bit. I really do need to find a more constructive outlet, but in the meantime, it has got me thinking and there are so many interesting buildings around… ;-D