India Visited and Revisited

A Reconsideration In Three Parts

Part One - God’s Own People (December 2007)

This is not about how beautiful Kerala is. People far more capable than I have written about that. If you can afford the time and the money, be sure to go visit Kerala. If you are unable to do that, get hold of a travel DVD or a photo book and gaze at the natural beauty of the state. This is about something else.
         People who live abroad fantasize about surprising their family members one day by arriving unannounced back in their home country and just knocking on the front door. Though I didn’t get to do that, our trip to India was unplanned. Our intention had been to head somewhere in the Pacific area, but the flights were completely full. We found a flight to Kuwait that was empty and on a whim went there. From there, we again didn’t get on the flight to Sri Lanka as we had hoped to, but managed to get on a flight to Trivandrum. Such are the vagaries of stand-by travel.
         The night after landing there, I called my parents from an STD booth and told them that we had ended up in India, and that we were in a town called Varkala which they probably never heard of. Turned out that I was quite wrong. Not only did my parents know of the town, both of them separately suggested that we might want to visit the Janardhan temple in that town.
         And so the following morning we went looking for this temple. It was hidden away from the touristy beach area, but after asking around and a short walk of 1 km we found it. The temple was on a small side road, off the main road into town, situated up a small hill. There were a hundred or so broad steps that led up to the temple. While going up the steps and again while coming down, we noticed a number of beggars who had positioned themselves, some on the steps and some others by the entrance to the temple. They were appealing to the temple visitors and passers by for alms.
         We had only been in India for around 48 hours and were not yet inured to beggars.
         There was one in particular that I vividly remember. He had laid down a burlap sack right on the road and was lying down on it. He was wearing only a saffron dhoti, had a huge beard, his whole body was awash in white and red religious markings, and was impossible to ignore. He would constantly move his amputated leg stump in a disconcerting manner to draw attention to it. He had placed a stainless steel plate on his bare chest, and in it were pictures of a few Hindu gods and goddesses and the coins that people gave him. As a final touch, he’d pierced his tongue with a brass trident. The tongue was permanently sticking out, and he was constantly wagging it. For all his effort and the effect it had on me, I dropped a coin into his plate, all the while thinking about how ineffective it was.
         As I expected she would, my wife Rupal asked me if I had any more rupee coins. I handed over to her all that I had in my pockets and she started to distribute them but those coins ran out in seconds. She then wanted me to go into a shop nearby and change a bigger note into coins. The shopkeeper gave me back a few 5 rupee coins, but I asked if I could have more 1 and 2 rupee coins, hoping to stretch the money a little further. Armed with her new cache of coins, Rupal crossed the road and went about doling them out. I watched from a distance as she walked to each beggar, chose her coin, handed it to them respectfully and moved on to the next person.
         But all too soon Rupal’s coins ran out again and she came back to join me. In the vicinity of temples such as this, our coins are few and the beggars many.
         In a sober mood, we walked back to the Varkala beach strip. Back amidst all the touristy splendor, the alms-seekers were quickly forgotten. We sat at an outdoor restaurant and ordered sumptuous wheat puttu for a leisurely breakfast. We admired the cute little kids of the Western tourists eating in the restaurant. The puttu was served in banana leaf lined plates, accompanied by sugar, ripe bananas, milk and honey. I am not apologizing for our apparent callousness in so quickly forgetting the plight of those who have so much less. The act of forgetting is a much-needed coping mechanism. No one ever helped poverty or hunger by descending into a depressive funk. And very soon the green charms of Kerala claimed us back, and we willingly went along.

That was then. But now I am here 1000s of miles away. When my thoughts do stray to “God’s own country” it is not Kerala’s vibrant hues of green that come to mind. Instead I often think back to the image of that sunny morning, when was I leaning against the crumbling wall of the temple pond, observing my wife across the road, recalling the way she’d bend towards each alms bowl, dropping those insignificant coins with utmost reverence, even as others were silently raising their arms for ever more coins from her.

Part Two - A Cool Town (December 2007)

It always amazes me how quickly we get used to luxury. After 4 days of traveling on our own in Kerala, we arrived at my brother Jagan’s place – the Karur Collectorate – and the experience was very different. The cook, servants, gardeners, guards and drivers were all keen that we experience no trouble whatsoever. That same day, we set off for Kodaikkanal in a chauffer-driven van. We were heading to the Carlton – a hotel that our Lonely Planet guidebook had categorized under Very Expensive.
         All aspects of this trip felt like true opulence, especially since it was coming right after a previous few days of wandering in Kerala by ourselves in autos and public buses. We checked in and immediately started checking out the 5-star amenities that the hotel had to offer. The deep blue Kodai Lake was right outside our suite’s private balcony.
         We then set off to explore the town. The hotel’s gravel parking lot which was in the open right in front of the main building had dozens of the best cars available in the Indian marketplace.
         “Where will you be staying?” I asked our driver.
         “They have dorms for drivers there, Sir,” he said pointing. I was impressed at the thoughtfulness of the Carlton builders.
         It was easy to see why Kodaikkanal always got rated as one of the top three destinations in Tamil Nadu -- bright sunshine with just a hint of the hill-station chill, a few lingering vestiges of the colonial British touches that everyone could now afford to be nostalgic about, a pleasant botanical garden and a sunset stroll up and down the popular Coaker’s Walk.
         The town itself was not too big, so after getting dropped back at the hotel Jagan benevolently decided to give the van driver the rest of the evening off. Dinner was still an hour or two away and Jagan suggested that we could very easily walk to any of the number of restaurants nearby.
         By evening it was getting chilly even in the balcony, so we all donned our blazers and jackets before walking out in search of food. The only “problem” was that out of so many good choices we had to settle on just one place for dinner. Jagan and I opted for the Astoria restaurant with me ordering South Indian while he wanted to try something from the north. Rupal, having had her fill after nearly a week of dosas and idlis decided to sample something else. She went off to try a Rajasthani place she’d seen earlier but they’d closed early for the night. She ended up eating in a place that served authentic Gujarathi dishes. If I wasn’t already stuffed with food, I would have joined her for dinner-II.
         Sated though we were, we couldn’t simply pass up the row of shops selling “home-made chocolates” and so we stopped and picked up a couple of small boxes. It was past nine and really cold when we started walking back towards our hotel.
         We live in Chicago where the winters are famously bad. But in December Kodaikkanal’s cold that night was no less daunting. Noticing all three of us shivering despite our winter wear, I almost regretted the decision to have given the evening off to the driver. To reach The Carlton we had to cross the car parking lot. In the dark I could see that a number of cars had their engines on and idling. I was puzzled at the idling engines. I saw that a few of the idling cars had one back door open just an inch or so. And then it dawned on me – the drivers were sleeping inside the vehicles. And they were keeping the car running for the little warmth it could provide. I wondered if they knew that they could make use of the drivers' dorm.
         Earlier that day my brother had mentioned that for some of the drivers alcohol from a wine shop provided the warmth. Maybe so, but I’d opt for a bed and a warm blanket over a half-pint of toddy any day. Within two minutes we crossed the parking lot and gratefully entered the bright lights and the welcoming warmth of The Carlton.
         “Was the dorm comfortable?” I asked our driver when I got a chance the following morning.
         “Full aidichinga. Vanliya paduthukitten.” It got full, so I slept in the van itself.
         Here, back in Chicago, I try not to think about the driver sleeping in the vehicle in the cold. But one question nags me, a question I often shy away from whenever I get to experience true luxury: Can opulence only be enjoyed by those who train themselves to overlook the pains of the less fortunate people who work so hard to make that luxury possible in the first place?

Part Three - Rickshawnomics (January 2008)

The first thing I do is start by disagreeing, as soon as I arrive in any city in India, airport or railway station. Almost by reflex, I try to lower the price that the taxi- or the auto-driver quotes. For years, I attributed this to my frugal nature. There was no other way I could explain my behavior even to myself.

         But something about this tendency to negotiate on every occasion was bothering me. I am frugal, but not foolish. Why was I getting so worked up about 10 rupees, even walking away from the lone auto available just because he wanted a few more rupees than what I assumed was the prevailing fair price? In a two week trip that usually cost upwards of 2000 US dollars, I was quibbling about 5 and 10 rupees. What I was arguing about was less than a rounding error.
         I have often wondered about this incongruity in my behavior but this time I think I finally got closer to a viable explanation.
         In this recent trip, I observed that a number of my relatives and acquaintances also went through an almost exact bargaining routine. These are people who invariably hail from the upper middle-class and they casually mention lakhs of rupees transacted in real estate, and they are not hiding the fact that their family income is north of several lakhs each year. And yet, I noted with some amusement, they too argued passionately with auto drivers over a few rupees. A few otherwise calm people even got apoplectic when the auto-driver mistook them for a newbie visitor and quoted atrocious prices.

         Back in Chicago, a few days after returning, I was thinking about one such ballistic outburst when I had a moment of sudden enlightenment.
         My mistake all along had been that I was trying to understand this from an individual’s point of view and that explanation simply wasn’t working. To understand this, it had to be viewed in a much broader context, as a long-running feud: We were all participating in the never-ending Middle-Class versus Auto-Drivers war – and that meant that every auto-ride had to start with a skirmish.
         Let me elaborate. If you are an auto-driver, your score is tracked by how much you manage to raise the regular fare, and if you do manage to fleece anything over the normal fare you earn bonus points. Let’s say that the regular fare in a neighborhood to go down to the local electric train station is Rs. 25. Auto-drivers will keep quoting Rs. 30 or even Rs. 35. Some riders will pay it while others won’t. But once a quorum is achieved, that is once most of the middle-class starts paying that amount, the regular fare now becomes Rs. 30. The auto-drivers have managed to bank 5 points permanently.
         On the flip side, if you are a middle class customer, you don’t agree to pay the extra 5 rupees even if you can well afford it. You are doing it for your neighborhood brethren. Collectively, the auto-drivers are trying to raise the set prices, and the Middle-Class is collectively trying to keep the fares down. This is a collective war.

Once this war analogy insight occurred to me, everything fell into place quickly. For example, the auto-drivers are at what is known as the ‘initial ask disadvantage’ in negotiation terminology. They have to reveal their cards first. They have to quote you a price to your destination first, while you have the luxury of sneering and walking away. To counter this disadvantage, the only way that the auto-drivers can score any points at all is if they hang out in groups in certain street corners. Their battle plan is to band together collectively, and to intimidate you the patron if you dare to suggest a lower fare.
         I even better understood my own behavior. I don’t really hate auto-drivers nor do I need the five rupees, but since birth by default I was playing for the Middle-Class team. It hardly mattered what my net worth was or whether I could afford the extra charge. It was my duty to score for my team and I was obligated to bargain.

         So in my next trip when I walk out of Sarangapani street and hail an auto and say “Arumbakkam, Perumal Koil street,” I know and expect that he will quote something well above the prevailing rate.
         “100 rupai kudunga, Sir,” he will say, making the offensive move.
         But my defense will be ready. I will immediately clutch my chest and feign a massive heart. I have no intention of letting a driver score even 10 points while I am playing for the Middle-Class team.

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