Friday, July 25, 2008

Monopoly Hats, Lessons from Dogs and Dessert

Thursday’s paper has two articles of interest. The first one says “Pray this doesn’t happen in your city!” and discusses how the incidence of miscarriages has increased in Mumbai due to the bad roads. Yes, the roads are so bad in Mumbai that women are losing their babies.

The second article is a graphic box with text that reads, “Expect long power cuts today in east, west and south Delhi, basically all of Delhi. 6-8 hours. Workers will be repairing parts of the wiring. Make sure your inverters are charged.” Power cuts are quaint and all; I just hope the hotel has an inverter, which, I think, is like a generator—because without air conditioning or even a fan, the heat quickly becomes choking. This may be another meaning of the word posh in Delhi: “has an inverter.”

After breakfast I get in the cab. Sonu says, “Very old snap, this one,” and hands back a tattered and folded picture. “My wife,” he says.

It’s a picture of the two of them. He is smiling and has a crimson scarf draped over his head and shoulders. He looks straight at the camera. His wife is wearing muted pastels, has her hands folded and is looking down so much that her face is barely visible.

“Beautiful,” I tell him. “Thank you for showing me.” I hand the photo back.

At work, I get word that the CEO liked four of the phrases that I supplied for the Pearson India website. It will say: Live and learn, Learning for life, Chart your course, and Learning matters. There will be a piece of me on their new website. I’m flattered.

I meet with Vikesh from Marketing who wonders why we don’t try to sell some of the training we create in our department. “You should market the things with wide relevance and application, like email training.” He asks if we’ve talked to the folks at eCollege. They might be able to help. His marketing mind is at work. It’s more of the “make it happen” spirit I’ve seen so much of here in India. Whatever you’re interested in, you can do it, said Angshuman. And he wasn’t kidding.

At lunch, Amar gives me more of the history and geography of Delhi. We are in east Delhi right now (I make a mental note of this in light of the power outage article in the paper). Then there’s Lutyen’s Delhi: Connaught Place, India Gate, Janpath. Lutyen is the British architect who planned and built the colonial areas of town. These places have wider, tree-lined avenues. They are less crowded—or they were less crowded when they were planned. Some of them have been crammed up with just as many vendors as you’d see in an east Delhi neighborhood market. Some of them you can’t tell from the rest of the city.

After lunch I go for a walk through the streets of the industrial park that surrounds the office. I pass by food vendors. Some of them are fanning hot coals and roasting ears of corn in them on the ground. Others, many others, sell little packages of a chewing tobacco—I think it’s betel. Turns your teeth brown and spits out red on the ground. One cart has plastic containers of cookies. “Not even a morsel,” said the University’s Book of Dread when it cautioned against eating from street vendors.

I try to discern what the businesses around Pearson are—what they do—but it’s a challenge because of a conspicuous lack of signs. Pearson Education is the only large business sign I’ve seen in our development.

I pass by a mechanic’s shop and a truck full of oscillating fans, but that’s all I can make out on this, my first walk around the place.

I think I’m the only woman walking out there, and certainly the only white person. And I notice that whenever I look at someone, they are staring back at me. I smile, but they don’t always return the greeting. It’s rare that they do. I try to remember what the guidebooks say on this point. Should I make eye contact? Avoid eye contact? Did one book say that eye contact and smiling is provocative? I’ll have to check when I get home.

Either way, this minority feeling is a bit unnerving, especially coupled with the language barrier. I hadn’t counted on feeling uncomfortable in this way—and I have to say it’s really not that bad. It’s hard to describe if you haven’t found yourself in this situation. There’s no good parallel. It’s a vague feeling of being without a tribe, a family, a shared identity. They showed Barack Obama on the news speaking in Germany last night, and I looked at all the Germans and got a bit homesick for Iowa. It’s like everyone here is a piece in a puzzle and I’m the top hat from the Monopoly game. It’s a missed fit. A disjunction. And there is some discrimination that happens too, mostly by way of surly looks and exorbitant “white taxes.”

What is not at all parallel with the minority experience in America is the sense of disempowerment. I am not disempowered. I am not “stuck” here with no way out. I am not trapped in a lower social stratum because of the way I look, the color of my skin. If that were the case, I wouldn’t be feeling a vague and passing discomfort. I’d panic.

When I return from my walk, people are gathered around Angshuman’s computer. He is playing a news piece from IBN Live. They are profiling Upinder Singh and the history textbook Pearson is launching on August 5th. They show Singh in her personal library at home, looking very scholarly. They discuss how this is not a history of kings and nobleman, but a profile of the lives of everyday people including women. Singh discusses how it was important to her to incorporate themes of gender and document matters of the household. The narrator tells us that the book has no political agenda. “I see myself as a liberal historian,” Singh says. The narrator tells us Singh's students call her “U Singh.” She seems like quite an impressive woman. Amar told me that Pearson was going to fly her somewhere and she insisted on going economy instead of business class. The profile concludes by saying that the book took four years to create and is the only history book of its kind in existence, with photographic documentation of many archeological sites that are now destroyed.

I want to clap and cry when it ends. I am moved and proud to be part of a company that invested in something like this. “We took a risk on this book,” I’ve heard more than once. And it’s true. Publishing in India is notoriously a reprinting business: get titles from the U.S. and U.K. and print them on cruddy paper in black and white for cheap prices. Even the Brit at breakfast yesterday said this when he asked what I was doing here in India and I told him "publishing." Pearson Education is trying to buck the reprinting trend and bring solid, relevant Indian content to the students who buy their textbooks. This is an experiment. I hope it works.

In the afternoon, I finish the layout for the preface of International Financial Management and send a picture of an elephant to a friend back home.

In the evening, I walk again to the market, this time taking with me a piece of nan (Indian bread) that was leftover from lunch. The dogs will like Indian cooking, I figure. When I find them today, they seem no happier to see me than the first time we met. This is good, I think. They are wiser than I am. Everything in India is wiser than I am—probably even that enormous slug-snail I saw the night I landed here and haven’t seen since. These dogs know I’m not here for good. They know attachment isn’t useful. If I show up, that’s nice. If I don’t, that’s nice too.

They’re not even attached to food. They are so uninterested in the nan I can’t even get them to take it into their mouths. There is no feeding these dogs. I’ve never seen anything like this in my life! Dogs who don’t like to eat, but somehow aren’t skinny or starving? I think maybe the Indians are worshipping the wrong animals as I see a cow grazing beside a No U-Turn sign. These dogs are some kind of miracle: a model of Buddhist asceticism.

At the market I hope to find some Indian sweets. I go to Nanthu’s Sweet stand, but what is behind the outdoor counter looks suspiciously like street food. All dirty with flies in it. Not even a morsel, I think.

Then I find the Defence Colony Bakery. Promising.

I walk inside and am greeted by a giant shelf of Ferraro Roche chocolates. Not what I was hoping for. A man behind the counter repeats, “Cha bat a. Cha bat a. It’s Italian bread.” He holds out a tray for another man. “It’s crusty bread made with olive oil. Cha bat a. Cha bat a.” This must be a new attempt for the bakery.

Behind the glass I can see some homemade confections (in comparison to the imported, pre-packaged chocolates). There is a fruit cake and a tiny fruit-glazed tart. They’re not Indian, but they look really good. I remember the warning about not eating fruit with the skin on it, but, for some reason, the treats look okay. It’s probably all imported, I reason. Everything in this place is imported, including the box of Sour Jacks candies at the check out counter.

In addition to good restaurants, Defence Colony Market is the place to go for expensive imported items, I discover. English tea and biscuits. American Cheetos and Doritos. The boxes and bags are always a little smashed and dirty by the time they get here, but the stuff inside pretty much tastes the same (if it’s not too stale). I’m slightly disappointed by un-Indian character of my market, but it’s nice to know I can get some comfort food if I want it—I’ll just have to pay through the nose for it. The other night, two boxes of tea and a box of granola bars cost me upwards of ten dollars. That hurt. But I’m getting used to being overcharged in India anyway, being a white chick and all.

I return home with a cute little bakery box containing a fruit tart and a piece of fruity cake, which I devour for “dinner.” Finally something I don’t want to share with the dogs. Finally something better than digestive biscuits. I wait to see if a backlash ensues, but I’m fine. It’s strange here how you can operate on hunches once you get the knack. This food looks okay. That water seems fine.

Julianne tells me she eats at Subway all the time, even the lettuce, which I am told is a big no-no. “I don’t know,” she says, “I figure they have to keep their food clean because of Subway standards.” She’s been right so far. Or maybe she’s been lucky. Hard to say. I think it mostly all boils down to luck and the strength of your stomach/immune system. I think of the lime-scaled glass my Uncle Joe offered me water out of one time at his house and how I shrunk back in fear from it. “That’s okay; I’m not thirsty.” I told him. I should have taken the water. I should have eaten the dirty dishcloth that he wiped it with. I would have been better prepared for my Indian odyssey.

After I eat, I jog in place in front of the BBC World News for about thirty minutes, pretending I’m on my treadmill. It’s not the same, but it will do for the time being to help me “keep my thin.”

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