a view into the sordid life i lead

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

beaten senseless

i'm getting used to the horrendous imam who wakes me up at 5 am. it's scary that he's at it before the earliest birds. i'm figuring the birds have given up on being the dawn-breakers since this dude beats them to the punch and has amplification on his side.

there is life here that i had forgotten about. the grit and grime and rawness of existence here is something the residents have become innured to. it's making me feel alive, in that way the meat-packing district makes you feel at 6am, just before the carcasses are washed away but after the stench of blood and guts has pervaded the atmosphere so you feel like an entity has to be quelled with every step you take. that's india - the entity that needs to be quelled at every step. the land of ten thousand irritants, each one more aggressive than the last. but even here things are being squashed by mall culture and road-a-holics. there are more roads and flyovers than i remember, and it seems like there are only going to be more.

i could easy get used to this place and forget about my previous existence. it's beginning to happen already, and it's only been 6 days. SIX days! Feels like i've been here for an eternity already, but i've only been unemployed and out of the uS for 6 days!!

there are obviously things that i would have to get used to. having a servant who's constantly being polite to me is kinda strange and i'm still not on the correct frequency to know how to behave with her. the streets have no "footpath" (curb), and that's going to take some time to navigate. walking in the middle of the street is something that should come naturally though! actually there are several streets that have footpaths, but they're almost never used. they're designed in a very odd way - they're about a foot off the ground, so you have to step up and down constantly; they're also quite irregular and have obstacles that must be contended with: peddlers, trees, fences, adverts, etc. basically they're pretty non-functional which is why they're avoided.

family and tradition and culture are the big things to get back in sync with. i've been trying hard to keep my toes in line and put the best foot forward, but i think i've already fucked up at least a couple of times. yesterday we went to a traditional "vazha-elai" place (i.e., banana-leaf service) called Sanjeevaram. they serve you on a banana leaf, which is a treat that cannot be described unless. when we were kids we would salivate at the thought of having banana-leaf meals, and it turns out that my little cousins still do. banana-leaf meals bridge generations! at the end of our meal i grabbed something off my aunt's leaf that she just left. that's definitely not kosher down here. i had forgotten about the concept of "yecchai", which refers to eating in a "polluted" way - kinda like double-dipping. i guess i knew it subliminally, but my stomach overcame my cultural sensitivity!

family relationships are huge in the tam-bram community it seems. i cannot stress enough just how deep these instincts run. but i'm a bit unsure right now about whether this is systemic or just related to my immediate family - are all tam-bram families so formal with each other?

chennai is adapting to "international" standards, whatever the fuck that means. the immediate translation is mega malls, high-rises, big-ass hotels, and glass hi-tech buildings. are these the inevitabilities of economic progress? as long as we're doing business with the US we're going to try to emulate them in every way possible. my relatives seem to think that the small guys will be able to survive regardless. i'm not so sure. i think that there will be rules instituted in the next 5-7 years where street peddling is licensed and limited to specific zones. a giuliani-zation of chennai if you will. nyc's pushcarts went the way of horse-drawn carriages, even though the masses on the ground thought that they could never be quelled. the fruit ladies, the flower girls, the paper-wallah, the knife sharpener, they're they heart and soul of an indian existence, and i fear that they'll be swallowed up whole like gold jewellery was by fashion trinkets. here's my prediction: by 2010 there will be a movement by the local governments to start clearing out the pushcarts and "upgrading" the system. bicycles and human-powered vehicles will go teh way of the bullock carts and cows. (incidentally, what *did* happen to all those cows and goats that were loitering around the city constantly? how did a thousand cows and goats get moved away so completely?) mall culture will take over and people will buy the vast majority of their produce from stores, instead of pushcarts. you can see it happen already - it's easier to find parking in front of stores, so my father decides that's where he'll go to buy whatever he needs. the pushcart vendors can't compete with "free shampoo with your purchase over Rs. 300. their marginalization has, i think, started in a very subtle way. the argument that the underclass and pooor will still have to buy from the pushcarts is going to start fading away. even the poorest person will be buying from something that resembles a small wal-mart. no, not resembles, it'll BE walmart. i can see it now - all the cheap labor here fuels the likes of walmart who can buy massive quantities of produce at ridiculously low prices. and they'll throw in a free packet of shampoo to boot! have we heard this story somewhere before?

what are my chances of being wrong? i think reasonably slim. the transformation is already beginning. the lower income brackets aspire to be middle class. and the middle class increasingly consumes from brick-and-mortar rather than wood and wheel. there's one more thing that's already beginning to help make the transition. there are fewer and fewer footpaths for the vendors to set up on. so where are they going to peddle from? there's a guy on royapettah high-road who sells peanuts from a tiny median on a 5-way intersection. that'll go away in another few years. there's a chance that i'm way off, and the reason is pondy bazaar, a street packed with 3 layers of vendors: the permanent brick-and-mortar shops, the quasi-permanent street vendors on the footpaths, and the nomadic pushcarts and walking hawkers. and they're all competing with the same product marketed to different segments. there's a glass-front BATA store with air conditioning and salesguys that call you ma'am and sir, and right outside is the footpath vendor who's selling nike, reebok and bata knockoffs, and just beyond him is the hawker with bags of flip-flops. you'd need a really big sieve to filter all of this competition down to a single mall-type storefront. but that's the sort of thing that walmart is really good at. let's talk again in 2010 and see where things are at.

there are three sure-fire money-makers in chennai right now: restaurants, wellness businesses (hospitals, clinics, pharmacists, alternative healers), and religious outlets (gurus, temples, churches, evangelists). restaurants are understandable - we've got to eat, and madrasi culture loves to eat! wellness, on the other hand, is just plain odd. across the street from my parents' place is a renal laboratory. next door is a clinic. down the street is an ayurvedic clinic. next to that is another clinic advertising "asthma, arthritis and digestive disorder" cures. in a 1km stretch anywhere in the city there are at least 4 clinics or health centers. i used to think the US was hypochondriac. chennai (i don't know about the rest of india just yet) puts the US to shame. there's more quackery here than a pond-full of ducks in a kellogg wellness institution. you name it they've got it, but only if there's no accountability for it: reiki, pranic healing, energy healing, vastu. the crap just keeps building. the best part is that i have at least one family member directly connected to each of these areas of bogusness. it's fascinating that the population here has completely given up on taking care of themselves and have put their lives into the hands of snake-oil salesmen. maybe it has always been the case here and i've just never noticed? i'll leave out the debate of whether the US's staunch squashing of all things alternative to maintain some untenable form of accountability is better than this stew of dubious solutions! the religious/spiritual connection is taking root everywhere in the world, but not in a healthy way at all. there is a minority propounding grand unity and true inter-faith peace, but for the most part the rest of the gang is quite divisive. that's the only way the leaders of these movements gain respect and a following i suspect - controversy sells! and indians love an argument.

in the next few days i'll have a view into the slightly seedier parts of town and let's see if they mimic the middle-class strangeness of tam-bram society.


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