Friday, July 18, 2008


Monday was supposed to be my first full day of work.

I woke up, had a warm shower, talked briefly to my husband on the phone since my Internet connection still wasn’t working, then went downstairs to breakfast: a juicy fresh mango, tea with milk, juice, and toast with slightly off-tasting jelly. As far as I can tell, the jelly tastes odd to me because the principal ingredient is sugar, whereas in the United States, we make everything with corn syrup. Everything’s better with corn. Everything. Even our gasoline.

Who ever thought I’d miss corn?

I should mention that somewhere between the shower and the mango, my toilet broke. The handle (which was more of a knob than a handle) came right off in my hand. So this was the new broken item of the day. I tried to tell Mira about it after breakfast. “Toilet broke,” I yammered like a dummy using as little English as I could. “Toilet broke.” She looked puzzled. “Flush?” I said.

“Flush!” there was a look of recognition on her face. I wasn’t sure of what, but it seemed like progress. “I tell the man,” she said.

“Sukriya,” I said. Thanks is one of the only Hindi words I have down—but it comes in handy, especially when there are so many people serving you: there’s Mira who makes breakfast, Pachu who brings it to me and who (hopefully) will come fix my toilet, the guard who opens and closes the gate every time I come and go, and my driver, Sonu. I do a lot of thanking people.

After breakfast, I went up to my room and waited for my driver… but there wasn’t one. On Friday I’d spoken with a woman from the hotel who said she was waiting to hear back from Pearson about the final arrangements. I never heard back from her, so I feared that Monday might find me in this predicament.

After looking up how to say broken toilet in my Hindi dictionary (it’s “taa i let too taa,” in case you’re interested), I called the woman from the Ahuja Residency back. Her name is Surrinder Singh in all the emails, but she goes by Ms. Sonu. There’s still confusion over what kind of car service I will use to get to work and how it will be paid for. Never mind this, though, she will send Sonu (the other Sonu) to get me today and we’ll figure it out later. Sonu will be here in ten minutes, Ms. Sonu assures me.

I take a deep breath and lay back on my bed, relaxing… and I stay there for about half an hour. It’s now 9:15 and I was supposed to be to work by 9:30. I call Sonu back—the hotel lady Sonu, not the driver Sonu. “Is Sonu coming?” I ask Sonu.

“He is not there yet?” she asks in her best customer service voice.


“I will call him, and he will be there in just ten minutes,” she assures me.

At about ten minutes of ten o’clock, Sonu the driver appears. “Hello madam,” he says, smiling big, as he opens the car door and closes it behind me. We whip off through the insane Delhi traffic and I watch the now more familiar sights fly by: the men on motorcycles with their sari-clad women riding sidesaddle behind them, the dilapidated shops and peeling billboards, the makeshift bamboo hovels on the side of the streets, trucks with flowery paintings on the rear gate and always the reminder, “Horn Please.”

It is now that I realize that Indian traffic lights can take up to ten minutes to turn green. I previously thought we were in some kind of traffic jamb when we stopped for that long, and wondered why, all of a sudden, the deadlock would just abate and the vehicles would resume their reckless speeding.

The clock on Sonu’s dash reads 10:30, and I am beginning my work assignment by being over an hour late. I hope that what everyone says about time being less relevant in India is accurate.

We catch another red light and I watch a group of people working under a raised highway. They are breaking up dirt from a pile with bent-looking shovels, putting it into baskets and spreading it over an area in the middle of the highway that is covered in rubble. They’re covering rubble with dirt. The women put the baskets full of dirt on their heads to move them, then dump them out on the rubble. Stray dogs weave in and out of the stopped traffic looking street wise.

I think of these little clams I found on the beach in Florida the last time I was there. A wave comes and washes them up out of the sand, then they hunker down and bury themselves back in the sand, then another wave comes, and they bury themselves again, and so on. This is their existence: simple subsistence. Their job is digging.

Life is stripped to essentials here; there’s no escaping it’s harshness. The middle class can’t just look away because there is nowhere to look to. Beggars are everywhere. They are the other essential experience of a Delhi stoplight. They come up to your car window and motion with their hand to their mouth to tell you they’re starving, or they knock, knock, knock with their knuckles and show you a child, or the stump where their leg used to be. There is no way to give money to every one of these people every time they ask—and all the guidebooks say it’s best not to give lest you be harangued as when you throw a scrap of bread to a pigeon and the whole flock comes pecking at your head. The guidebooks say instead to give to a “reputable charitable organization” that does work in the country—but there is no end to the work to be done in this country and giving to a reputable organization will not help the kid with the distended belly and the dirty hair and the searching eyes being paraded past my car.

Julianne says it’s “hard to know if the need is real,” that there are also professional panhandlers who aren’t really starving and are just out to guilt you out of your money. Anyone who sees begging as their best option in life, to me, has a real need. It’s not necessarily for the ten rupees some passerby might throw at them, but it is a real need for education, for opportunities. But then who am I to determine that these people would be happier if they knew more or had the chance to do something else in life. Just because they don’t own a duplex in Coralville and have five spoiled house pets doesn’t mean they’re unhappy. Who am I to decide what their lives should look like?

There was another quote inside the Lotus Temple that I should have copied down. It said something to the effect of, “I should not rejoice when good things happen, and I should not despair when bad things happen because I know it is all temporary.” There’s a similar tenet in Buddhism which states that if we seek happiness through external means, we’ll never find it because even the best of life conditions are constantly changing. External measures of “happiness” are nothing but distractions from the true inner peace and compassion we should be working toward.

This ethic pervades the religions here and leads to a sort of acceptance of suffering as a fact of life—but it is still hard to stare it in the face at a ten minute long Delhi stoplight.

I promise myself to find out about some reputable charitable organizations when I get home. There is no other way I’ll be able to make it through the traffic, day after day, for three months.

We finally pull up to Pearson Education at 11 a.m. and I find myself in Amar’s office apologizing profusely as he wobbles his head. “It’s okay. I called your hotel and they said you’d already left, so this is okay.” He looks more concerned over the fact that I’m ruffled than the fact that it’s eleven o’clock. I decide I can chill.

He finishes up a conversation with a young, female development editor, Shabnum. How wide will the minor margins have to be? How many pages will the book be? How many words? Page number is very important for a book here, he explains. You just can’t charge as much as you want for a book because students won’t buy it, so you have to limit the page numbers. Shabdum leaves and Amar turns his attention to me.

He starts our conversation not with work but with a series of kind and sincere questions about my welfare. How am I doing here in India? What have I seen so far? How is the place where I am staying? And what of the food? Am I finding it too spicy and oily? Am I adjusting to the country okay?

I tell him of my persistent Internet woes and the fact that I’m having trouble talking to my husband because of it. He creases his brows. “This is very difficult,” he says with sympathy that almost makes me tear up. “We’ll have to see what we can do.”

I tell him about my trouble with the deadbolt and the hot water switch, and he reciprocates with a story of his own. When he visited the New Jersey office about two years ago, he accidentally called 911 from his hotel room when he was trying to dial the India country code, which is something like 011 + 91 + 11. Police showed up at his door. At least I hadn’t involved the authorities in my culture shocked bungling. We both laughed.

The day (what remained of it, anyway) passed in conversation. Amar told me the rather impressive but very brief history of the development editing group of Pearson Education. The group works on textbooks in the humanities, social sciences, business and economics. They also work on competitive exam books sort of like the SAT and GRE preparation books we have back home. Nothing gets published in hardback unless it is a high-end, academic book meant for a niche market like libraries or other institutions. Students won’t pay for hard covers. They’ve also done a few trade books on topics like fashion and cookery.

The business started in 1997 as a strict reprinting endeavor. They would get American or British titles, reprint them on cheaper paper and in paperback editions and manage the production and distribution of the titles.

This created a problem: something called global arbitrage. The cheap Indian editions of books would find their way back to the original markets to get sold at rock bottom prices. This wasn’t bad for Pearson Education India, which still made the money from the sales, but it wasn’t good for Pearson Education overall, which lost revenue they would have made from much higher sales prices in the established markets.

So a system of “enabling and disabling” was introduced. Before a title was reprinted, it would be adapted for the Indian market. This would simultaneously help Indian students understand the texts better (enabling) and make them less appealing if smuggled back to be sold at slashed prices (disabling).
The group worked with the authors of the original texts to include case studies, artwork and contextual examples that would apply to the Indian audience.

Then, just two and a half years ago, Amar and Angshuman began the development editing group for the higher education division in earnest. They went to the United States, studied the textbook publishing process in New Jersey, and brought back a version of it that they thought would work in India. Now, along with adaptations of existing texts, their group produces original textbooks that are commissioned, developed, published, produced, marketed and sold in India. This is something of a rarity.

The editorial process consists of three phases: commissioning, development and production. All other publishing houses in India go straight from commissioning a book to production (copyediting, typesetting and proofreading). The development editing process at Pearson Education is unique.

The process of development editing entails taking a manuscript and putting it through a rigorous cycle of reviews, research and edits. Development editors manage student and consultant board reviews of the manuscript, conduct research into competing titles and course syllabi, and work with authors and illustrators to improve the quality of the final product.

Amar shows me some examples of books that the department has created or adapted since its inception, the biggest deal being a gorgeous hardback text full of glossy pictures of India’s ancient history written by Upinder Singh, the Prime Minister’s daughter. This book is a risk for the company because, Amar says, Indian titles don’t sell well. Everyone wants the market-leading books that have been used in classes for decades, and these are books written by people from the U.S. and U.K. It’s hard to compete for authority in the market, but this plucky little department is doing just that.

The history book I’m leafing through, Amar says, is the first book of its kind written from a neutral, purely academic perspective. Histories in India have been written with a leftist bent and have tended to blur the line between mythology and fact. The book also has photographs of monuments that have since been destroyed. India’s sense of historical preservation is only now beginning to develop. I have seen this firsthand in Delhi, where the national zoo has enclosures that are clearly built on top of the crumbling walls of the nearby Old Fort, circa 1550.

They’re having a launch for this book, Amar says. I should come. The Prime Minister will be there, so the planning for the event is a hassle.

“Here we do everything ourselves,” Amar says. “We have no people to do this, so we make arrangements for authors when they come to visit. We plan these events.” Amar tells me some of the peculiar requests they’ve already had from the PM: no one can bring any prepared food to the event. The food has to be prepared at the event. And no one can turn their back to the PM, so they have to think about how he’ll be seated.

A succession of editors stops into his office for his counsel. The first woman’s eyebrows are raised over an email she got from an author whose book was rejected. “He told me, ‘How can you do this to me? I have a heart condition!’” The book was tabled after it had been in development because the competing title analysis proved there was unoriginal content in it. “I was careful not to call it plagiarism, but he still keeps saying, ‘How could you accuse me of this!’”

The next woman who steps in is wearing a long black sari and a deep red bindi. She is chatty beyond all get out. She has just seen nine movies at the Delhi film festival. Nine movies in one day. How did she do it, Amar wonders. “My mother used to shout at me in Kolkatta,” she says. “I would be out watching movies all day and all night and she would say ‘Why do you not just pitch a tent? Why do you even bother to come home?’” I’m not sure she had any actual reason for coming to Amar’s office.

His third visitor is also a young woman, but she is wearing western clothes: slim, black pants and a white collared shirt. Her author is arguing that he wants to keep the footnotes even though the reviewers agree that end notes are less disruptive to the reader. What should be done?

As the visitors abate, Amar tells me about Indian politics, the office phone system and his travels to America. He couldn’t get used to eating dinner so early, so he’d often miss it altogether. “There is a good, scientific reason to eating dinner early,” he says, “but I just was not so used to it.” Dinner here begins around eight o’clock, and that’s really still a bit early.

It’s about six o’clock and Amar says I can go if I want, but I actually want to stay and see if I can get the iPass and VPN software on my machine updated. 6:30 p.m. here roughly corresponds to 8:00 a.m. in the U.S., and I need the desktop support folks in the U.S. to be able to talk to the IT people here. Rampal (the IT guy) says he’ll be here until 6:30, so I go find him and tell him I need his help.

We end up working on updating my machine until about 8 p.m. Indian time. While we’re working on downloads and other fixes, Rampal and his friend ask me all sorts of questions. How do I like it here? Do I like Hindi music? What about movies? Which ones have I seen? Where am I staying?

“Defense Colony,” I tell them.

“Oh, very posh,” they say.

I think of my broken toilet and the lizard that crawled into my unsealed door. I try to equate this with my definition of “posh.”

“How are you getting to work?” they ask.

“I have a driver.”

“Doesn’t it take a long time?” they ask.

“Yes, it does, but the ride’s interesting.”

“Don’t I miss my husband,” they wonder.

“Yes, I do.”

They find all kinds of problems with my situation. Yes, the Internet doesn’t work. Yes, the commute is crazy. Yes, I miss my family. Yes, my toilet is broken. Yes, lizards can run into my room willy nilly and I share my living space with a healthy population of ants. Yes, yes, yes.

Somehow, none of this is the least bit bothersome to me at the moment, and I think I have found a little touch of the peace they talk about in that Lotus Temple quote: the kind that isn’t dependent on external circumstances.

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