Kerfuffles with Rickshaw-wallahs

Any composer trying to capture the aural assault of a typical Indian road would be remiss if they did not include this dialogue as an interlude to their composition. To offer an even more earnest representation, they would include this dialogue at least four times within the span of ten minutes. Seriously; one can have this conversation, and I speak from experience, four times while walking one kilometer on an Indian road.

As someone who operates in the yuppified world of business, I must admit that I do admire the tenacity of their salesmanship. There seems to be a belief among these rickshaw-wallahs that I’m simply being coy, or playing “hard-to-get,” and that I truly do want a ride in their kerosene-fueled rickshaw instead of enjoying a leisurely promenade.

Occasionally, my common sense fails me and I pay one of these fearless men to try to kill me as many times as possible en route from my present location to my destination. They are overwhelmingly qualified and determined to perform this task. Before any of this fun can begin, however, one must partake in the ancient ritual of haggling over the fare. Some heathens have switched to metered fare, but a purist does not meddle with such treasonous technology. Rather, both rickshaw-wallahs and their patrons rely upon some bastardized version of the same formula. The common variables of this formula are distance, cost per kilometer, supply and absurdity. My personal bastardization of the formula is something like this: (Distance x Cost Per Kilometer – Supply x 5) / Absurdity = Starting Offer for Fare. Of course, the rickshaw-wallah has his own formula, so after the initial calculations are shared among the two de facto mathematicians, the ensuing fifteen minutes are spent pretending that averaging two numbers is a skill that is only qualified to be performed by overly-exuberant thespians. If there was an Oscar for Best Depiction of Numerical Shock, I’d have at least seven Oscars on my desk and a Lifetime Achievement Award to boot.

This negotiation always seems to teeter on the precipice of hostility. This is only made worse when the only words the two parties have in common are numbers. To deliver a shocking low offer for fare can only be done when delivered with a bit of humor. On several negotiations, I lost my footing and plunged into a kerfuffle. Of course, this never actually gets to the point of fisticuffs, just a verbal spat between two people who do not understand each other. This typically ends up in one party relenting. Victor or not, I typically end up crawling into the backseat of the rickshaw, a faint, black smudge invariably finding its way onto my pants from the smog encrusted vinyl seat. As the rickshaw-wallah driver jerks the engine to life, and we putter along the roads of India, we both sit sullenly silent, mentally recalculating our formulas. Being a child of the 80s, my eyes are naturally drawn to the shiny rearview mirror that is quivering from the same fear of death that I am probably experiencing in the backseat. Naturally, the mirror is pointed at me, and not at the road. When we stop momentarily, I see my reflection; the sun glinting off the beads of sweat on my face, a look of surliness commandeering my face. Something shiny shifts in the other mirror and my eyes are immediately drawn. I can see the rickshaw-wallah in this reflection – a layer of sweat on his face, the same surliness – and his eyes meet my gaze. I may as well have been looking at my doppelganger.

Devotion

I went to a Carnatic concert a few days ago with a young professional and aspiring Carnatic vocalist. Meeting him, and seeing some of his fellow students, unearthed a force that is constantly bubbling beneath Indiaʼs surface: devotion. Not necessarily religious devotion, but being focused on doing something. These devotees donʼt have to quit their jobs or drop every alternative activity in order to pursue that which drives them. Instead, they concentrate intensely upon that which they are pursuing. Rather than teaching oneself to ignore distractions, the opportunity for distraction is removed altogether. Rather than guide oneself, the voluminous experience of one who has reached the sought after goal is enlisted. Rather than feeling content with the gains thus far, one identifies that there is still far more to be gained.

Since arriving in India, Iʼve heard several individuals tell me their pursuit will take a lifetime. Still others will say that reaching their goal will take several lifetimes. Swallowing this horizon and ruminating upon it forces one to digest the weight of the task at hand. Thereʼs a degree of humility and submission that seems to be inherent in the approach here. While perfection may be the destination, nobody would be so audacious to think that they had arrived.

Plenty of people are deeply devoted the world-over. What I think is interesting about this with respect to India is that this approach seems to be ingrained in people through religion. From childhood, one is inculcated with the concept of achievement taking lifetimes. The timelines laid out in Indian theology seem to always trend toward the intangible. To grapple with such a cumbersome span, one is taught to concentrate. Repetition; ritual; routine; discipline; humility – these are all things that are impressed upon the people here as the ingredients of concentration. Naturally, these lessons are employed in pursuits outside of the religious realm.

Though I have grown up with this religion and this background, I find that I will anoint myself an expert with relatively little time devoted to concentration and study. Learning in any field should never cease, because there is far too much to ascertain. Knowing that mastery is intangible, however, should be encouraging rather than discouraging. Intangibility, from what I have observed, is what sharpens oneʼs concentration and vivifies oneʼs devotion.

Guys Day Out (Tamil Edition)

“We will go to Vandalur Zoo. You are here in Chennai; it is my duty to take you. I will take you.” If Murugan, my Keralan colleague deems it, then it must be so. Several days later, I was on the back of a Honda motorcycle, leaving my pied-à-terre for a ride through the entropic roads of Chennai. One delicious coconut, four near-accidents, and twenty-six kilometers later, we arrived at Vandalur Zoo to commence what I would soon learn was Guyʼs Day Out (Tamil Edition).

Murugan and I decided to commence GDO(TE) on our own, and have the other dudes join us as they arrived. Peacocks, parrots, love birds (I swear thatʼs what they call them here)…all seemed so overwhelmingly flamboyant and awkward that day. By the time we reached the snake exhibit, we had assembled the full GDO(TE) cast of six. While walking to the big cat exhibits with my posse, I couldnʼt help but notice that there were similar, all-male groups enjoying the zoo together.

It is not uncommon to see a gaggle of guys with their arms around each otherʼs shoulders, or holding hands for prolonged periods of time. If this aspect of India were to be personified, weʼd be met by Glenn Beck. Fiercely homophobic, but exhibiting behavior that seems to contradict said position. Like flatulence, I cannot help but laugh when I observe these public displays of affection, and, also like farting, I feel terribly awkward when I am an active participant of these actions.

Yes, I held hands with a dude here. How do you buck cultural tradition gracefully? I didnʼt even have a huge belt buckle that read, “Git ʻer Done,” on my person! I know; I was ill-prepared. What began as a handshake ended in at least forty-five excruciating seconds of hand-holding. Iʼve since learned that giving someone dap (that is a ʻterrorist fist bumpʼ for you Glenn Beck fans that have arrived here via Google), is an easy way to avoid holding hands.

Once I got past this, I started to learn more about my fellow GDO(TE)rs. They were all incredibly nice and accommodating. I was really struck by their insatiable curiosity. Murugan, in particular, has a very unique perspective. From teaching me about the natural remedies of Kerala, to his thoughts on education in India, I know there is a lot to be learned from him.

As far as the zoo was concerned, it was a zoo. Nothing particularly incredible except one thing: one of the GDO(TE) homies, Thyagaraja, lives next to the gentleman who cares for the zooʼs four white tigers. The man was kind enough to take us behind the enclosure to meet three of the tigers. While the tigers were encaged, to say I wasnʼt concerned about the integrity of the structure separating me from three fearsome beasts would be a lie. Fortunately, there were five brosephs next to me that would have gladly held my hand.

Women in South India

Regal is the first word that comes to mind when I think about the women in South India. Iʼm not sure if it is the fresh jasmine they wear in their hair, the way they confidently hold their heads high, or their deep connection to their cultural traditions. Whatever the reason(s), the outcome for me is admiration. Mom, donʼt get excited, Iʼm definitely not bringing home a daughter for you anytime soon!

So what is so distinct about the women here? Why do I perceive such a marked difference? Well, having always assigned great cultural awareness and education to women who have studied classical Indian dance (completely out of blind awe, I might add), the fact that Chennai is brimming with classically trained dancers probably contributes to my impression. While I certainly believe this stereotype to be true, I have learned that the women in this region have an ancient relationship with Indian arts, culture and education. I recently learned more about a kingdom I knew very little about called Vijayanagar in Karnataka. Women in this kingdom were involved with commerce, government, and the arts. Cultural epicenters were built within the kingdom where women practiced art and dance, wrote and performed plays, and penned some of Indiaʼs cherished poetry. The women here seem to be aware of their pedigree, and seek to uphold the standards of their lineage.

Understanding their contributions and overwhelming value, it is easy for me to think of their lives idyllically. Wrong. Statistics on crimes against women, particularly violent crimes, in India are appalling. According to the National Crime Records Bureau of India, of the ten fastest rising crimes in India, seven of them were crimes against women. Dowry deaths up 15%, kidnapping and abduction up 13%, human trafficking of women (mostly young girls) up 12%, sexual harassment up 11%, rape and molestation up 7%…remember that these are only the reported cases. While the rates in South India may be different from the whole of India, any rate is abhorrent. To make the argument that crimes in Chennai arenʼt as bad as other cities in India, or that crimes in India arenʼt as bad as other countries is crass and an exercise in ignorance.

It is difficult for me to comprehend the struggles these women face personally when, on the surface, they represent something so completely different to me. What is the solution? I have no idea. More stringent penalties and a rigid period of time between reporting and investigation might be a start. Indian Law is weak when it comes to both of these deterrents. Education seems to be a root answer when it comes to most social ills. Programs that focus on economic independence for women? Whatever the solutions, it is clear that more needs to be done for the plight of women here. In the States, I wouldnʼt necessarily consider myself a fervent participant in the struggle for womenʼs rights. I believe in equality across the board, but Iʼm certainly not out there protesting anything. Seeing the state of equal rights and how little press it gets here is what has moved me to write something about it.

Day One

After a long day of sleepless travel, I got to the Park Sheraton in Chennai and immediately fell asleep. While the rest was needed, and it transitioned me perfectly to the time change, I will be working US hours here, so I had to spend Sunday trying to convert back. I explored the absurdly posh hotel, ate dinner at Dakshin (which included yogurt and ice-cream [read: tempting fate]), and prepared for work on Monday which helped me get back to bed.

Iʼm in Chennai to train a team of eight individuals for my company. Iʼve been training them over the phones for a week, so exposure to the challenges of working within a truly globalized environment has been limited. Iʼm sure that the coming months will teach me a lot about business culture in India, and allow me to view globalization from the Indian perspective more lucidly. More on that later, though.

From the little that I have seen so far, Chennaiʼs roads are constantly buzzing, and one thing is immediately noticeable: the jarring volume of people. The social polarity, the punishing struggles, the unbridled happiness…all of it assaults you within a five minute rickshaw ride. India has no mercy, she immediately smacks you in the face and forces you to submit.

No pictures for today, just exploration and words. That will change tomorrow. Another change tomorrow: no more “let me tell you about my day” posts. In all honestly, today was uneventful, and Iʼm trying to get back onto the US schedule (this post, a pot of coffee, and the Premier League are getting me there).