Monday, September 24, 2007

Monsoon Mania

The monsoon has been dealing us a tough hand this week. It has been raining nearly nonstop from Saturday through Monday. In the evening, just before work was about to end, I received an IM from a friend.

"It looks like it's going to rain 40 days and 40 nights," she typed. As usual, I am complete unprepared for any type of weather.

"Is there a spare umbrella in the office?" I typed. I was not looking forward to standing out in the rain in front of Menoka Cinema waving my hands frantically at any cab that might pass by...

She responded, "I don't think so. I have one, but not a spare."

"How easy is it to get cabs in a downpour like this?" I asked.

"Not that easy," she said. "We can share a cab and I'll drop you off. The thing is that I don't know where we'll be able to catch a cab in this weather. They're also going to charge a lot. We might have to get on a bus or an autorickshaw."

"All the way to Jadavpur?" I asked.

"One of the many adventures Kolkata has to offer," she replied. Yeah, I guess so... :-)

I was not looking forward to that. Neither option was very appealing. My next thought was asking someone at the front office. There is one person I can always count on to help me out and he was busy with a number of other things. I begged him, "please. please, please... can you help out a foreigner who barely knows her way home, doesn't speak the language... yada, yada, yada..." and he came through. He let me know that one of the other GLs (Group Leaders) would provide me and my coworker with a way home. What a relief.

Just then, my coworker IM'd me again. "Save everything on your computer because water is getting in." I found this a bit hard to believe because there are four steps up into the office. I contacted the GL, confirmed when/where to meet and decided to wait with the rest of the folks outside the office. I turned off my computer, turned off my lights, and opened the main door to find water half way up the steps and rising. I now understood why everybody was walking around with their pants rolled up around their knees, as I was now doing the same.

We waited outside commiserating with other workers while we waited for the GL. The water just up to my knees. It was starting to rain again. The GL came around the corner and beckoned us to move along. We followed him a short way down the lane to a car half submerged in the street. He opened the door and the water poured straight in, filling every available space. When we got in the back, the water was about halfway up our shins. The car started, much to my surprise, considering its tail pipe was under water. I kept my window open so I could see where we were going. There was not a lot of traffic on Southern Avenue, but the water was halfway up the side of the car. People would yell from the sides of the street because of the wake the car was producing as we passed. None of the homeless were anywhere to be found, but the stray dogs were sleeping on tops of piles of sand or bricks or anything high enough to keep them dry.

As we got closer to GolPark, the water got shallower but there were a lot more cars to navigate around, some stalled in the middle of the roundabout. As we climbed over the bypass, I wished I'd had a cup or something to start bailing out the water from the car. Everytime we started or stopped a wave of water would end up in your lap.

Heading south, traffic became really snarled. We were stuck at the light from hell where Gariahat Road and Prince Anwar Shah Road meet - then we realized why - there was a huge tree down on the north side blocking all traffic. They were using the north side of the road for traffic going in both directions. The car would rock side to side due to the waves of bigger truck and cars... It was really a madhouse. I was really glad to arrive home safe and sound.

I opened the door and asked Will to get me a bucket and antiseptic to soak my feet and legs. Both the GL and my coworker strongly advised me to, since "you never know what's in the water". One of my direct reports at the office has been out sick with Typhoid, so I took their advice. I went out on the terrace to see the extent of the water problem and I seriously couldn't see any streets. Some of the ground floor spaces looked flooded. Lots of lights were out. Then I saw a firework go off. Then two. Will came out and we watched fireworks going off all over the city. We still have no idea why, as the rain misted down a firework would burst open to the left, then the right, and then far to the north near the Howrah bridge.

Will said, "I'm hungry, let's eat. It's wet out here." No kidding.

Bicycle Rickshaws

On Saturday, after completing work, a couple of friends came with me to go furniture shopping at Steel Junction. Will and the rest of us piled into a taxi and took off toward Salt Lake. When we arrived, I realized it was yet another mall with expensive designer stuff, not the metal bazaar I had expected. They did have some furniture, most was not my taste. I did love the railings, door fittings and accessories, though they were quite expensive. I was being followed around by many sales clerks that would jump to answer any question I might have. I decided to have a little fun at their expense.

"Does this come in pleather?"

"I'm sorry Madam?"

"You know, animal pleather?"

"Pleather? I will just go see..." He conferred with 3 or four other sales clerks, giving me time to sit on things, test stuff out, and touch the fabrics without feeling like someone was watching my every move. By the time he came back to tell me no, I had already decided what I wanted to get. We purchased a glass and steel table for around 7,000 and four leather and steel chairs to match at around 1,200 each. We also selected a convertible couch that can be pushed up on one side to make a double-wide chaise lounge, or folded lengthwise as a couch or used flat as a bed. This cost a little over 18,000. The modular sofa I have my eye on is 40,000, but that will have to wait for another day... Delivery is 400 rupees and we should have it tomorrow. It will be so great to have furniture!

After that, my friends suggested Big Bazaar for all of my other metal needs. With a dog with a long wagging tail, we have already broken every single glass in the house. I wanted simple steel cups. I wanted plain metal thali dishes as well. Nothing fancy. So we jumped into the taxi and headed to Santoshpur. The place was packed as expected on a Saturday afternoon, but I went nuts as soon as I got there. They had everything I had been look for at normal prices. Towels, clothing, socks, paper towels, food, liquor, wastebaskets, even an international food section! I was exhausted. We had two full carts and two pails completely filled with stuff and when we finally were able to check out, my debit card wouldn't work (probably because we spent over 30,000 earlier at steel junction, but it's a debit shouldn't be that way). We quickly pooled our resources and we were around 1,500 short, so my friend said she knew of an ATM close by.

Will and my other coworker stayed with all of the stuff with she and I left the mall.

"It will be faster if we take a bike rickshaw," she said.

"Great," I said with a grimace. Now, I had previously had a conversation with my other friend that I would not ride in a hand rickshaw because I could not use another human being as a beast of burden. He agreed to some extent, but didn't feel that a bike or autorickshaw was the same. We approached the bike rickshaw guy and my friend struck a bargain with him. I climbed up, making the rickshaw tilt to one side; she got up on the other and he sat on the seat and we set off. Apparently it was up hill... The wind was blowing, catching the top of the rickshaw like a sail, making it even harder for him to make it move. He was standing up using all of his might to keep the bike moving forward. One of the stray dogs passed us. People walking on the sidewalk passed us. Eventually we made it along the lane to the ATM.

I got my money and we climbed back up into the rickshaw, returning back to Big Bazaar. We jumped down and my friend gave the guy a 10 rupee note. He pointed at me and started arguing with her.

"He must be charging by the pound," I laughed. She laughed and gave him 2 more rupees, then we headed back into the bazaar, paid the store and left, getting a cab and heading home.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Holidays & Birthdays

Last week, three strangers showed up at my door while I was cooking dinner. They were requesting 400 rupees for the upcoming Durga Puja celebration, which is probably the biggest they have here in Kolkata. It turned out that they wanted a 400 rupee "donation" in order to host a celebration in the courtyard.

"Everyone must donate, Madam," one of the men said.

"So, it's not really a donation, then is it?" I replied.

"Everyone at Ekta Towers contributes, Madam," he said with his hand outstretched.

"What if I don't celebrate your holiday?" I asked. (Sort of checking out my options.)

"Everyone contributes." was the reply.

The woman who accompanied the two men asked where I was from.

"The U.S." I replied.

The other man then offered, "It is a minimum 400 rupees donation. You can give us more."

I asked, "So if I decide that I want to celebrate, oh I don't know, Yom Kippur or Buddha's birthday, I could just walk around and solicit 400 rupees from everyone?"

"No, maam. That would not be possible." the man replied, his hand outstretched again.

I sighed and got my purse. I had no problem with giving them 400 rupees. If they had asked for a donation with my choice of amount, I probably would have given them a 1,000 rupee bill as a gesture of honoring their culture and holidays. This was exactly like dealing with the condo police back in New Hampshire, those retired old people that had nothing better to do with their time than run around and tell everyone else what to do.


I turned 2 on Saturday. (My sister-in-law suggested I use the numerology base number for my age from now on.) An hour or so after I arrived at work, I had 30+ people crammed in my office, and I was given a huge bouquet of flowers, candy, and the largest card I've ever seen.

"Seriously, folks, couldn't you find a bigger card?" I asked. It was really nice.

Then they started singing "Happy Birthday" and when they came to that part in the song, where you sing "happy birthday dear so-and-so...", they hadn't really planned. It was really funny. Some people said Jeanne, some said Mada... oh no! and others just faded out. Here at the office, I am known as Madam. I can tell whenever someone is talking about me because "Madam" is the same in English, Hindi and Bangla.

It makes me uncomfortable to be called Madam because in the U.S.:
1. "Madam" is usually some old lady living alone in a house with w-a-a-a-a-y too many cats.
2. "Madam" (or "Ma'am" as it is usually used) is typically said by arrogant sales ladies at wildly expensive makeup counters in very pricey department stores accompanied by a sneer to indicate "You are not good enough for our products - go away". It is ALWAYS used when you ask for samples.
3. "Madam" is used by telephone customer service representatives instead of the word "B**tch". I think it actually says that in their training manuals: "No, I will NOT get my manager. I'm sorry, Madam, but the policy states..."
4. "Madam" is the title used by the proprietor of a brothel.
5. "Madam" just makes me feel old.

I made it pretty clear when having meetings with my staff to never call me "Madam", but it is so ingrained in the culture here, that it makes people uncomfortable to call me anything but. :-) I'm getting used to it, slowly, and I understand it REALLY IS a term of respect.

I was in a meeting with my Team Leaders when the one presenting called me Madam. I muttered something under my breath about calling me Madam, and it really disconcerted him. He became a little flustered and took a second to gain his composure. I've stopped doing that.

It was pretty funny to listen, though. The "Happy b-i-i-i-rthday dear Mada... oh,no!" was just priceless and made my day. :-)


Later that evening, Will asked if I had had a good birthday, I replied, "Of, course. I got to spend it in Calcutta, India, didn't I? Isn't that great?"

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

I Bought Liquor By Myself, Sort of.

I asked the driver to pick up Will and bring him to the office. I asked him to accompany me on my quest to buy something all by myself. He said, "Mom, if I'm with you, it's not all by yourself." Okay. Truth is, I knew this could be a bit hairy, so I wanted him along. Havng a 6'1" beefy white dude couldn't hurt. We told the driver where we wanted to go. I was pretty sure where the place was, and I was able to locate it without too much fuss. It was dark by this time, and the only bright light emanated from inside the shop. There were four steps up to the iron cage that kept the people out. There was one hole in the grating, big enough for money and bottles to pass through. My car was about 15 feet from the steps. Will and I got out and approached the steps. Will said, "I'll stay down here in case there's trouble." He was standing there looking like a Secret Service agent - lots of furtive glancing, arms crossed over his chest, big scowl on his face.

I went up the steps to join the 8 or 9 men crowded around the entrance. Inside the store was brightly lit. There were lots of very small bottles and a lot of imported brands tucked in everywhere all the way up to the ceiling. I watched the men order - they were typically spending about 5 to 10 rupees on pints of whiskey. I asked how much the Skyy Vodka was. 1,500 rupees. I ask about the Smirnoff Triple Distilled - 430 rupees. I ended up choosing the Blue Riband Gin at around 200 rupees a bottle. I hand over the money and they wrap up the bottle in newspaper and hand it back. I head back down the stairs into the darkness, and into my car.

That wasn't so bad. Overall, it took maybe 5 or 10 minutes. I had a couple people tell me I was crazy attempting to buy my own liquor. Apparently, Bollywood starlets still get flak when they are found out to smoke cigarettes or drink. There is the possibility that people on the street may make assumptions about me and cause me trouble. Here's where everything I stand for, everything I believe in comes to play. I can either work within a flawed system and assimilate, or I can believe in myself and self-worth and not care what some dude on the street thinks of me. And as usual, I do not go quietly.

It may have seemed a simple thing, it may have seemed a stupid thing to do, but it was a big step for me in asserting my independence, something I do not take for granted.

The Importance of Finding Your Sense of Place

I was over on IndiaMikes earlier and there was a posting from a young English woman in Delhi asking "when will I ever feel like I'm home?" It got me thinking about how lost I've been feeling. Don't get me wrong, people have been incredibly gracious and go out of their way to help us get whatever we need, but I just don't have that sense of autonomy that I am so used to.

As a person who has set up households in many different states of the U.S., I had come to think of myself as pretty self-sufficient. I could take whatever I needed and get whatever else when I got there. But here, the rules are completely different. When I ask someone in my office to help me find, for example, paper towels, they'll typically tell the office boy who will get me paper towels. When I ask how do I arrange a driver for tomorrow, someone runs off and does it. All I have to do is show up and a car is there. Now I don't take this for granted. The fact that people are willing to manage this stuff for me is certainly something I appreciate. The issue I have with this is that it makes me completely dependent on the kindness of strangers, and I'm no Blanche DuBois*... or am I?

After being in Kolkata for, what, five weeks now(?) I still can't get myself from point A to point B without completely stressing out. I can't feed myself unless I go to a restaurant. Sure, I have found some food stores, but they are lacking certain must haves, like, hmmm... meat. vegetables. I still haven't found kitty litter or how to buy gin by myself. I am hampered by a great many hurdles, most of my own doing.

A good friend at work keeps telling me to meet my neighbors and get feedback from them regarding who to hire as a cleaner, driver, etc., but being from the U.S., I have a general unease when it comes to meeting people in my building. Basically the premise is, the better you know your neighbors, the higher the possibility that they'll want to borrow your stuff, the more they'll think they can ask you to turn your music down, and the more they'll expect you to invite them to your parties.

It is of general consensus to anyone who calls me a friend that I don't make friends easily, that I generally blow them off a couple of times before I actually show up, but once I open up to a friendship, I am the loyalest of friends. I have never been accused of being outgoing, just outspoken.

What does this have to do with India? I have a personality flaw, a serious one, that makes life much more difficult here than it has to be. If someone came to me, all wistful and full of handwringing like this, I'd pretty much tell them to knock it off and get over it.

I've located a liquor store on the way home. It's a hole in the wall. When we passed it yesterday, I noticed that there was a grate over the front of the store and a number of men milling around. I plan on being assertive and joining the fray in my search to build up some semblance of a bar for entertaining. This will be my first discovery on my own since I moved here. Not knowing the language, being a woman, being a foreigner, oh well... let's see what happens. Next time, it will be lawn chairs or the purchase of a can opener. Hey, a girl has to have her priorities...

* It's always nice when you can add a Tennessee Williams reference to your writing. The sultry air of Calcutta makes me feel required to do so occasionally. The play is called "A Streetcar Named Desire". Blanche Dubois is one of the main characters, a faded beauty who always "depended on the kindness of strangers". She slowly goes insane during the play.

Saturday, September 1, 2007


First off, It IS Gangurams, not Gangrene, as previously posted. Wills read the sign as he was speeding past. Sorry for the confusion.

Second, the car and driver does cost between 900 and 1,200 rupees per day when you use a car service. I am using them temporarily until I purchase a car of my own, and then I will hire a driver. In Kolkata having my own driver will cost me anywhere from 5,000 to 7,000 rupees per month. We've had some random drivers with a wide range of ability, but all were FAR better than taxicab drivers. Even if they were unfamiliar with an area, they still knew the major streets and were able to navigate effectively. I am wondering how to find a driver and how to understand just how much he knows about the city.

From what I understand, I will need a "sweeper". This person will clean bathrooms only. I will need a housekeeper, someone who does the rest of the house. Someone to wash my clothes. Maybe someone to cook. Maybe someone to shop. Someone to manage my money and pay my taxes. Plus the car and driver. I've never experienced the servant side except for my year in Mumbai and I never had to hire, supervise and fire them... It's all new to me.

I've been dealing with a serious cough since we landed here over a month ago. I've started calling it "Calcutta Cough". I don't know if it's the pollution, the A/C to outside heat exposure or just a general malaise everyone gets when they move here... I just need to get rid of it. I have been dreading going to see a doctor, but I need a cough syrup with codeine to get rid of this. They have chemists every 20 feet but they either pretend they don't understand what I'm asking for or they just say no. So far I haven't been able to get anyone to explain just what you CAN buy in one of those places other than Paracetemol (their version of Tylenol), which is all they give me when I tell them I have this cough. See what I mean?

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