In 99-00, I spent a year in India. This is a chapter in the journal of my adventures there.
Bombay; February 9
Aleika, Akirno and Somak back home
Aleika, Akirno and Somak arrived as scheduled, around 5 a.m. I hung around for a few days as they settled down, and Somak quite rapidly agreed to “keep” me. That was a rather big load off my back.
It was nice to find myself in a house full of people. Akirno, who had been able to walk upto nine steps before crashing to the ground when I had left him, was now a real little toddler, walking and running. He didn’t “recognize” me straight away, but after a few days we were good friends again.
I was expected to go to Bombay for a wedding on January 29, straight after another wedding in Pune on January 25-26. Unfortunately, the cold I had been dragging along for the previous weeks (nearly two months, in fact, on and off) did not seem ready to leave me, and I was starting to be concerned about my health. I decided it would be wiser to cancel my trip, stop running about and take some rest – which I did with much pleasure.
Therefore I can’t say I did much during the last few weeks. Life was very normal (whatever that may mean for a foreigner living in Pune). I did my first extended baby-sitting with Akirno: a two-hour nap, incredible feat!
Surrendering my flat
I was invited by Nisha to go to her best friend’s wedding in Bombay on the 8th (departure: 7 a.m.) and I wanted to empty my flat and settle my last rent before I left.
I had given written notice of my vacating for February 22, one month in advance, as indicated in the contract. As my rent was to be paid from 7th to 6th of each month, all the people that I consulted agreed that I should pay a half-rent for the last month.
Everyone, that is, except for the owner of the flat.
As I was to learn a little later through the broker, there seems to be an Indian law hidden somewhere declaring that rents are to be paid by whole months. During two long conversations with the owner of the flat, the second of which included the broker, I was granted yet another brilliant demonstration of Indian logic.
As I explained the chain of thoughts that lead me to the conclusion that I owed him half a month of rent, I got some surprising reactions (not mentioning that he seemed to nod with approval during my whole demonstration). First was the blunt “You will pay until 6th.” Then, “You can keep the flat until 6th”, when I expressed that I would not pay for a flat I had no right to occupy anymore. And finally, came the great conclusion: “You can vacate on 22nd, but you pay until 6th”. Very frustrating when this comes in answer to a lengthy explanation of yours which the other had seemed to follow and approve.
The presence of the broker didn’t get me much further. I kindly pointed out that I did not need his authorization to remove my belongings from the flat and stop living there (not that I had ever really lived in it!), that the contract allowed me to leave with one month’s notice and that it was exactly what I intended to do – he had no right to force me to keep the flat any longer.
As you may imagine, the conversation was stale, hopeless, and I was slowly but surely preparing to tear my hair out. As the law seemed to be on his side and his English was not that good, I finally had to give in. It was useless to insist.
It was mainly a matter of principle (at least as far as the half-rent was concerned), but there was nevertheless a financial issue for me: I wanted my Rs. 25000 deposit back on the 22nd. And if he was right about what said the law, then he was not necessarily entitled to give it back to me until the legal date of my vacating: March 6th. So I told him I would abandon this half-rent question as long as I got my deposit back on the 22nd – he agreed.
Between those two maddening meetings, I was in Bombay – and I was quite satisfied when I realized that I had forgotten to give him back the key to the flat (he wanted to let somebody visit it).
IUCAA; March 25
Rickshawallahs and cats
This episode reminded me of these rickshawallahs with whom I argue at night when I need to get driven home. As I am staying in a rather remote place, they are not keen on going there, and usually want Rs. 10 extra.
I always bring the price down to Rs. 5 extra, because I know that on the way, they will realize that it is even deeper inside the university campus than what they had expected, and ask for more money.
That way I end up giving them the maximum I was prepared to give them (Rs. 10 extra), which was also what they wanted at first (so that is supposed to make them content), and avoid finding myself deep in the dark university forest with a rickshawallah who is demanding an incredible Rs. 15 extra. I know I have to pay a skin tax, but there are limits.
I have found myself walking half an hour because no rickshaw would take me for the regular price – even though the total amount was ridiculously low for my Swiss purse. I find myself giving Rs. 10 extra or even more to drivers who were not asking or expecting it, simply because they did not complain during the trip – when all their colleagues wanted to charge me tourist rates.
Cheap rickshaw psychology. I know.
The conversation with my landlord also reminded me of something Aleika had told me some time back. Just before Somak left for England (that is, a couple of weeks before I met Aleika), they were being harassed by some people in IUCAA because of their cat, Bagha. You see, the greedy fellow has a habit of breaking into people houses and kitchens (he can open the fridge), and he also likes wandering around in the office building.
Of course, he insists on spraying generously the places he visits (that stinks!). So anyway, Aleika was telling me about this conversation she had once with somebody who was telling her to keep her cat out of the offices. She explained that a cat’s whereabouts cannot be controlled like a dog’s. She explained that a cat cannot be kept locked up. She explained that a cat cannot be easily trained to avoid certain places. That it cannot be kept on a leash. And each of her explanations was greeted by a very understanding “Yes, yes. But you must keep your cat out of the offices.” Talk about non-communication.
Bombay; February 9
Bombay with Nisha and Shinde
So, between my two maddening conversations with the landlord, I went to Bombay with Nisha and Shinde. The wedding we were supposed to go to was canceled the evening before our departure (the groom’s father had died), but we decided to go there anyway.
The following day, after a freezing dawn in Pune traveling to the station, a sleepy train-ride to Bombay, a short irritating walk through Dadar station (foreigners are the only people who are expected not to know there is a queue for taxis in front of the station, taxis who will take you where you want, by the meter and without discussion) we arrived at Shinde’s sister’s house, where I would be staying. Nisha and Shinde would sleep at Nisha’s sister’s, as it is not suitable for a man to stay at his sister’s once he is married: she “belongs” to the groom’s family.
We did some window-shopping in the evening. It was a bit disappointing, as I was harassed by the vendors and the salwaar kameez sets they sold were all too short for me (I’ve already mentioned I’m slightly “oversize” by Indian standards).
What I saw of Bombay that day was far less terrifying than my first experience of it. The city smells, there are quite a lot of people on the roads, the traffic is almost exclusively made of yellow-roofed taxis (and they drive fast!), but it is not more frightening than Pune. The dreadful memories I have of my landing there must owe their existence more to the shock of arriving to India than to Bombay itself.
Alibag; February 21
Day trip to Elephanta
Elephanta is a small island in the bay, famous for its temple-caves, and sculptures. I particularly wanted to see the one called “Ardhanarishvara”, a representation of Shiva as half-male, half-female. We decided to go there the next morning.
As we were walking around the quay near Indiagate to find an official booth where we would buy our tickets, I was faced once more with the chore of having to deal with touristwallahs. Being accompanied by two local Indians and wearing the typical native dress (understand: a polyester sari!) didn’t change a thing, of course. Everyone wanted to sell me tickets or useless junk.
It was Nisha’s first trip ever by boat. I was surprised at how calmly she took it. (And this was not the last time that Nisha would surprise me.)
Seen from the bay, Bombay hardly looked like an Indian city, with its white towers sticking out everywhere. To me, it looked more like a dwarfed American town.
We didn’t stay on the island very long. With the bus ride to Indiagate, the waiting for the ferry and the trip to the island itself, it was quite late, and apart from the main cave and its sculptures, there wasn’t much to see.
Shopping, cinema and back home
Back in Bombay proper, we went shopping in the Victoria Terminal station area. I was interested in buying a dictaphone, and Shinde took me behind the famous Crawford market. Stall after stall of illegally imported electronic devices, brought one at a time by travelers who declare them as their own property and then sell them once in India.
The presence of a foreigner between those stalls caused a certain commotion, and I didn’t find anything interesting – apart from a hair-brush with a vibrating handle (!) which I did not buy.
We ended up in a Muslim perfume shop. Jars and jars of the most exquisite scents. I came out of the shop with about twenty different smells on my arms and hands, and wondering if I should start an import business in Switzerland…
The next day I went shopping alone, as Nisha and Shinde had gone back home. The area between VT and Flora Fountain is a dreadful touristy place, and that is where I spent my day.
I have really reached a point where I find if very funny to have people jump out of their stalls as I pass by, or run out of their shops as I peek in the window. I think I cannot be indifferent to this behaviour, and I would rather laugh about it than get irritated. All the same, I still burn with impatience at times when I have a certain task to accomplish (e.g. buy a certain item) and I need the sales staff to be efficient. Never be in a hurry in India!
At the end of this tiring day I had a new crack on my foot and very tired legs, and I had only bought a couple of overpriced books.
Shinde’s sister showed me her press-book. Amongst other things, she has acted in a couple of Hindi serials. The photographs in the press-book really make her look like a movie-star – but in real life her skin is far from perfect and she isn’t half that glamorous, although she is rather pretty.
We went to the cinema that evening, to see “Kaho na Pyaar Hai”. Her husband had to buy a ticket on the black market. As the places are numbered, he had to swap places with our neighbour to be sitting with us.
During the process I saw they were talking with a bunch of people – I wonder how many of them swapped places so that everyone could be satisfied.
Interesting information: the cinema hall manager runs the black market…
I didn’t really like the movie. Neither the actors, nor the plot, nor the music really appealed to me. But it was “OK”.
I left Bombay at the end of the following day, after stopping in TIFR to see a friend’s lab. When I got off the train in Pune, I had the very pleasant surprise to see Shinde waiting there to drive me back! I could have hugged him, I was so glad not to have to fight me way home…
Pune; March 20
Back to Bombay – conversations with the driver
My friend Danielle was arriving on the 15th, very early morning, a few days later. The cheapest and most comfortable solution was to hire a jeep and driver to go and pick her up.
On the way, I chatted a little with the driver, but he wasn’t very talkative. Plus, we were talking in Hindi.
When we stopped for supper I invited him to eat with me. I do not feel comfortable about the Indian habit of making drivers eat in the restaurant’s “driver’s section”. H was very silent and didn’t lift his face out of his plate much.
I finally asked for the bill. They had given me butter naans instead of the plain naans I had ordered (it is more expensive!) – but of course they hadn’t given the driver butter rotis. ; ) They just charged me one extra.
I protested and the bill was deflated.
Back in the car, the driver decided to talk a little more. In fact I discovered his English was far better than my Hindi (he had studied in an English-medium school). The first thing he told me was that this was the first time he was actually talking with a girl.
I was astounded. And I needed a few explanations to accept to believe him.
In fact the poor chap was very shy, had no sisters or cousin-sisters, and had always avoided talking to girls at school because it would make him break into a sweat… No wonder he hadn’t lifted his head up much during the meal!
He told me that his sister-in-law had called a few days back from Delhi to say that she had a possible match for him (marriage). He would be going to Delhi a few days later to meet the girl and her family, and he was quite anxious about it. If he had never even talked to a girl, I can imagine the thought of getting married to one scared him off!
He was a nice person and luckily for me, he got less and less uncomfortable as time went by.
Bombay airport looked enormous to me. On my arrival in India, I had seen only the terminal I came in, and I hadn’t realized that the whole building was of respectable size.
I had already noticed on my previous trip to Bombay that the town was far less terrifying than what I remembered. Nevertheless, it is more dirty, smelly and “stressed” than Pune.
The driver and I walked up and down the building during an hour or two. I was trying to find the place I could remember as what I first saw of India. I had airport security asking questions to the driver because of my weird behaviour (peering into windows).
Unfortunately no place I could see matched my so vivid memories. Considering I have a very good visual memory, I was surprised. After quite a bit of investigating, I concluded that they had probably modified the geography of the airport since my arrival.
Danielle arrived safely, and we chatted all the way back to Pune (three and a half hours, that was quick!). It was great to see her. She confirmed that my French had deteriorated and that my English was somewhat indianized.