Tuesday, September 4, 2007

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.


Kenneth said...

jeanne ,do not , i repeat, do not go to that hole in the wall place and ask for gin. ask someone in the office, a man, to get you a bottle and pay him the price, ask for blue riband, which is a good indian brand, and will be infinitely cheaper than so-called imported liquor and less likely to be adulterated.follow the same procedure if you, as a woman, want to buy cigarettess.although when asking the guy, find out first whether he drinks/ smokes or is a teetotaller or he might take offence at being asked. in indian society a "cultured" woman does not buy her own booze or cigarettess.its has strangely to do with trappings of immorality. hell, in bengal and bihar it is usually the man of the house who shops for the groceries and veggies, woman fight shy of mixing with "lower classes" in public markets.

Anonymous said...

This is the first time I am reading ur blog, though I have read ur mails to the JJarch grp. Hmm, after reading what you have to say I feel you would have blended in with the mumbai crowd better than Kolkata. Everyone said that when I go abroad I could get a culture shock and i must prepare for it however the shock came only when i got back to mumbai after a gap of 3 yrs from australia. Mumbai had changed - what I mean is that you no longer needed to access holes to get your bottle of gin. (this was however not the only change-...but then I could go on...so will leave it for another day).

Avipriya said...

Me Priyanka, born and brought up in Calcutta and recently came to the Sates for my PhD. I just found your blog interesting and how a woman struggle in Calcutta being from the United States. I am also struggling here, but in a different way. Taking help from people in Calcutta is very normal. So, don't feel bad about that. People don't mind to help there and it's natural. I understand, that expecting help from others makes people dependent....but it's taken for granted there! And one advise though I am no one to give advise.....Don't buy liquor from hole. There are very good bars and restaurants in Calcutta at park Street. You can visit those bars for drink and food.
Here is a link for you. Hope this help. Enjoy your living in the City of JOY!

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