Monday, July 11, 2011

A few personal observations of India

A few of you wrote to me asking for my impressions on India. Full disclosure, I left to go see my amazing friend S. get married to the love of her live E. in Israel about a week after my arrival in Chennai, so my observations, while personal and authentic, cover only a brief stay in India. So here goes…

Darwinian driving rules & maximization of available space

So remember that game from the ’80 – I don’t remember the name, but the interface was pretty simple and the player needed to wade through oncoming cars. I describe driving, walking and biking in Chennai as a happy mutation between this game, whose name escapes me, and Tetris. On the other hand, if you happen to be the pedestrian in this environment, you are basically packman’s prey. The rules of driving in Chennai are simple, survival of the fittest and largest. Buses yield to no one, and I mean NO ONE, while trucks yield to buses. There exists a separate hierarchy among trucks depending on size gasoline and refuse carriers are at the top of the hierarchy, while small TATA made trucks and auto rickshaw trucks exist at the very bottom. Cars yield to trucks and buses, although this also depends on their size. SUVs have freer rein on the road than, let’s say ford fiestas. Auto rickshaws, or simply “autos”, yield to all cars, trucks and buses. Motorcycles and Mopeds yield to buses, trucks, cars, and “autos.” People who ride bikes yield to motorcycles, mopeds, “autos,” cars, trucks and buses. The pedestrian, as you may have already guessed occupies the bottom of this Darwinian road hierarchy. With sidewalks virtually non-existent, life of the pedestrian, yours truly, is at the same time adrenaline-inducing and terrifying. 

People don’t usually wear seatbelts. “Autos” do not have any seatbelts at all. Commuters make use of every available inch of seating in all vehicles. Pretty often one can spot a man, his wife and infant on the same moped, sans safety belts and helmets. Considering the Darwinian driving environment, families on bikes take serious risks getting on the road. Ahh, the “auto” quite comfortable in the heat while moving, sticky and not so fun when your driver stops at a gas station, about 25 m from when you got on and negotiated your destination and fare. Fare negotiations are a challenge. Don’t get me wrong, I am not fooling myself into believing I am getting a fair price, I am as pale as any human you may encounter in life. However I take offence at getting highway robbery rates. Having spent significant time periods in the Middle East, haggling for a moderately fair price is a way of life; otherwise the person providing you with the service will not respect you. I stand on principle. Speaking a few words of Tamil both generates good will and easier rate negotiation with “auto” drivers. Even though, the stakes of this price negotiation are minimal, I haggle with pride.

Pants optional

Due to the extremely hot and humid climate in Chennai and other parts of India, some men wear lungi instead of pants. A lungi, also known as a sarong, is a long garment worn around the waist by South Asian men. I knew that, but what I did not know is that there is a summer knee length lungi, also popular in town. Rewrapping your lungi in the middle of the street is also perfectly acceptable. Watch out girls, if your legs are not covered, you get stares from men. With that said, unlike in Delhi men will not harass you. 

Malls & Bathrooms

The malls in Chennai encompass more space than I noticed in any other public or retail spaces in this city. Malls here take up significant space and feature a wide selection of Western-style women’s clothing. However, most people you encounter on the streets, including expats do not wear Western-style clothing. The very humid and hot climate of Chennai and its surrounding areas makes it virtually impossible to wear fabrics and styles which we wear in the West. Besides the lack of comfort in with type of clothing, Western-style clothing does not hold up to the number of washes needed to keep clothes fresh and clean. So who actually buys these clothes? How do these stores justify paying their rent? I am not sure yet, but when I find out, I will definitely share my findings. Oh, we also passed a store exclusively for grooms; I offered to get married to A. once again just to see him with in full South Indian wedding regalia on a white horse. Also I believe I can totally rock the red and gold sari, with my weight in gold jewelry.

Last weekend A. and I went to our first movie in India and we went to see X-men. The movie theater felt like a nightclub, complete with a bouncer at the door, wonderful AC, and pumping techno. The screening rooms had seats for couples and singles, a first for me. Halfway through the movie we got an intermission followed by about 20 minutes of ads from local merchants. I went to the toilet and felt like a queen. I literally sat on a toilet throne, installed on a raised platform. The stalls also featured a yet to be connected sink, dryer, and a decorative fountain. The working sinks in the more public area of the ladies’ room were pretty cool. There were no sinks per say, just a solid slab of marble with water spouts positioned just above the slab. The motion activated water spouts and water drained behind the slab of marble to a hidden drainage ditch. Oh yes, our tickets cost $6 for the two of us.


Before departure, our State Department nurse instructed us to brush our teeth with filtered water as unfiltered water is not so safe in this neck of the woods. We’ve also been ordering drinks with no ice as a precaution. I went shopping with two of my husband’s co-workers and brought my first salwar kameez (kurta and dupatta as its called in Chennai). The outfit includes a fuchsia pair of pants – I think more fabric went in the making of the pants than the shirt (kurta). The pants can comfortably fit three of me. Our cook-maid remarked that I was wearing a lunghi, which is what men wear here in lieu of pants. I was wearing a halter dress which ties around my neck. Watch out ladies, apparently I am now a trend setter!
Enough with the personal stuff, next up – markets!