Indifferent Indian government, Pune, Sanitation in India, Travel in India, Uncategorized

Always an Alternative, Pune

Indu Yadav, 35, teaches yoga (IINM) (DYTT), sells paintings and is a photographer. Her business card is handsome, with a nice photo on one side of the Buddha, and, on the other, etchings of ancient masks and flowers. It says that she is the advertising manager for YES OSHO Magazine (meditation insights), which I haven’t seen and which, in any case, she acknowledges to be a gig mostly from the past.

She’s a solid woman, built like a shorter Williams sister and blessed with a wrestler’s temperament. Her boyfriend is a Bombay actor, successful, she says, on TV ads. They lived together for a time, but he stays now in Bombay, while she lives a clanking three train-hours away in Pune.

She scrambles for a living (she has applied for a job in Indonesia, to teach yoga to rich Indians there, though conditions, she hears, are far worse than in Pune; but she would live in a compound and have a high salary) or was curious and agreed to guide me a bit through interesting parts of Pune.

Indu, Bhule Mkt., PuneIndu Yadav

It was worth the Rs 1,000 ($15) I paid her on two excursions, just to hear her tone with the tuk-tuk drivers, with streetside vendors, waiters and shop-keepers. She didn’t ask, as I had been doing. She instructed.

Indian women from the poor side of society bear the children, wash the clothes, clean the streets, walking always behind, or, if they come from the Saudi-inspired villas of the criminally rich in Koregaon Park, simper and flutter cutely; but occasionally one comes across a woman like Indu.

“My arms are very strong,” she responded, as I commented on her fitness, trying to keep up with her fast stride.

She was kind, or kindly, to me, leading me across busy streets by grasping a little finger, “Come, come now….” and despite her background in advertising, she had no talent for equivocation.

Who are these people? I asked, gesturing to streetside vendors.

Traditional, she said.

I raised an eyebrow. I wanted more for my money. “Thik-hai,” she said, Okay.

No, she said, they are not licensed. They each have their place.

It seems the same woman, or same family, uses the same spot on the pavement week after week, year after year, sitting cross-legged on the pavement selling combs and brushes, tooth brushes and razors, ladies’ underwear, or vegetables, toys, bill-folds, flimsy child-sized shirts: “SUPER.”

Must they pay a fee?

“Yes, a tax.”

To whom?

She made a little face. “An illegal tax. Someone comes around, and they pay.”

“Ah,” I said. “That’s a job I could do.” I held out my hand toward the nearest vendor.

Indu wasn’t amused. “Once a week or in a month, he comes. They know who he is.”

The vendors, she said (mostly women that evening close to Bhule Market), pick up a little extra money, Rs 100 or 200 a night ($2 or $3). They pay their bribe, and they are unmolested in their space.

In India, Indu said, rules and regulations exist by the stack, but enforcement is capricious. “There’s always an alternative,” she told me, speaking as to a small child.

Motorists drive down the wrong side of the street, for example, for their side street, because it takes too long to make a U-turn properly at an intersection. They ignore stop lights. Merchants or manufacturers dump their garbage or toxins wherever. Vendors pay their bribes. Slum-dwellers build their tarp-roofed bustee. Anyone wanting a driver’s license or some other government form pays a gofer, who pays bribes to the proper clerks and returns with the proper forms properly stamped in far less time than it would take the applicant and probably more cheaply. “Always an alternative.”

“This scares you, I think,” she said on our first meeting, over her shoulder, driving me on her scooter down the wrong side of the busy street to the upscale Green House restaurant (where the counterman, greeting me as an old friend with genuine friendliness, volunteered he would return to New Jersey in January. “I love US,” he said. He buys perfumes and soaps wholesale somewhere in the city and sells them in a New Jersey flea market. “Yes, yes,” he said. “Money good, and what is your good name please?”).

Yes, it does scare me, particularly that bus that’s about to hit us head-on…

The next day, unscathed by the bus, we were up east somewhere, past the train station, in another markety area with Beijing-like pollution. I bought her a mango slurpy, bright green, and she ate it as we walked down the edge of the street through a steady flow of carts and rickshaws, matrons under umbrellas, raffish boys with unwashed shirts, piles of morning feces here and there (one walks here head down, eyes open; a manly, heads-up, John Wayne stride guarantees a squish, sooner or later, no matter the neighborhood).

She finished her slurpy (too mangoey for me), looked around, and neatly put the cup and small spoon in the little trash can (an old, cut-down cooking-oil container) in front of a street stall.

India provides, generally, no dust-bins, no trash cans, no curbs, no sidewalks, no sanitation. Most people drop their trash without a thought. I gave Indu a mental pat on the back. She had read the municipal corporation’s signs: Keep Streets Clean, Green!

“What do you think you’re doing?”

The old man in the stall, sitting behind a small, stainless-steel scale selling something unseen, was irritated.

She translated later, but the conversation was clear as it happened. Who’d she think she was, dropping her trash in his can?

It was better to do that, she said, than to just throw it in front of his shop. She was trying to be polite and trying to do her bit to keep trash out of the streets.

The conversation became loud. Passersby stopped. The other men in the stall leaned in, following first Indu then the grumpy old man avidly. The men in adjoining stalls took part. The old man’s glasses slipped, his voice rose, and he made an emphatic thump on the table with one hand.

Indu, dustbin argumentThe dispute

“I asked him what he did with the trash when his can is filled,” she told me later, her face still reddish with emotion. “He said that wasn’t my business. He just dumps it in the street. He said I should take it back where I bought it, not make it his responsibility.” She shook her head. “India will never change.”

They argued for several minutes, Indu with her head thrust into the stall, over the counter. He was obdurate.

After a time, she sighed, reached down into the can, retrieved her mango cup and spoon and threw it down on the street in front of his stall.

The old man nodded, vindicated.

We walked on.

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Cheap Travel in India, Travel in India, Uncategorized, Western tourists in India

Colorful Bombay

Up by Crawford Market in Bombay, I saw a brief cultural dance that would fit neatly in a Kipling story.

Crawford Market, Bombay

 

A white-haired couple from somewhere north of Pennsylvania, plump and pleasant looking, was walking tentatively, bravely alone. They walked through jumbles of porters with boxes stacked high on their head like  bearers in a Tarzan movie and in the slow flow of heavy wooden handcarts pushed and pulled by one or two or three men. The loaded carts are hard to start, hard to stop and hard to steer. And the streets there funnel the engine-roaring, horn blaring trucks of retailers loading up on fish and fruit and vegetables, and taxis swarm. Hovering, little roosts of thieves, crowlike, watch with sharp eyes.

The couple had passed me when I stopped to buy three bananas, and I noticed that the man had a large Canon camera swinging from a shoulder strap, its long lens swinging this way and that as he walked. He and his wife were both in khaiki shorts and bush shirts, as if looking for leopards, and the man was wearing a canvas expeditionary hat of the sort sold in New Yorker side-panels.

Just outside the market, they mistimed traffic on a side-street and nearly got hit by a truck. You can cross through the flow if the truck or bus or cycle, the tuk-tuks,  have time to swerve, but you must walk in a straight line, balletically, fending off speeders with a fluttering bull-fighter hand, and at a predictable speed.The traffic streams around you. It’s a lovely, enlivening system. Stopping suddenly or changing course screws it up.

They lost their nerve, understandably, and stopped. The truck driver slammed on his brakes, shouting Mumbaikar imprecations, and created an even bigger obstacle. Somehow, in the blare of horns, the oblivious couple, unimpressed by the virtuosity that left them unsquashed, staggered on to the other side. They neglected to thank the truck driver for his reckless virtue (though, of course, the paperwork for killing a pedestrian is formidable, and the required bribes would go on forever).

“Are you with them?”

A young professional man of some sort was speaking to me, tilting his head toward the old couple.

I wasn’t, I said.

“That camera,” he said. “I worry that thieves will take it. The market is full of thieves.”

Some thieves in India rob from scooters, whizzing by and snatching gold chains, shoulder bags and large-lensed Canon cameras swinging casually from the left shoulder on a broad strap that would move from the leopard-hunter’s shoulder to the thief’s in a trice, whoosh, never to be seen again; others are runners, or a hand from between vegetable stalls, or a team: one hits the opposite shoulder, and when the head turns, the partner grabs the chain, or bag; the camera. The market is crowded.

Crawford Market (2), Bombay

“I am trying to tell him,” the professional man said. “But he thinks I am selling him something.”

I told the man I’d do my best and followed the couple onto the vegetable wholesale floor, a busy place.

They were uneasy. The guidebook had said “busy” and “colorful,” but it hadn’t mentioned the porter suddenly blowing his nose between two fingers right in front of them, or the sidepusher on a loaded handcart shoving them aside with a quick arm—“He hit me! That man hit me!”—to save them from getting run over, again, and who is this little man now in front of them, appearing from nowhere, holding up a badge of some kind and chattering in Indian English about “veddydangerous.”

“No, no, no, my dear,” the little man said to the camera man, “I am not guiding. I am working with market. Your camera,” he motioned at it, “not so good here.”

The man understood. His lip curled. “He’s saying we can’t take pictures,” he said disgustedly to his wife. “We have to pay something.”

The small man fluttered unimpressively. He was not selling, he said too quickly now to be understood, but the camera could be stolen, “taken, you see. Not everyone here is so pleasant,” he said, more to me now, standing sympathetically beside him, than to them. They had figured him out and were ignoring him, unless he made them buy a ticket.

I tried. I had the advantage of looking familiar to them, though it might be like Midnight Express, with me working some fiendish scheme to steal their passports. I planned a suave intervention, but abandoned that and gave them both a mighty shove, “Jesus Christ!” grabbing the woman to keep her from falling. She nearly screamed. They hadn’t seen the heavy cart bearing down on them, nor had I until the last moment, and they were unsure even as it passed us by, a ton or two, inches away, that it was serious. Surely there were rules!

“This man works for the market,” I said. “He, and the man outside, were trying to warn you that your camera will be stolen if you carry it like that. You’ve made yourself a target.”

“A target!” the woman said.

The man snorted. “No problem so far,” he said in an executive voice, and turned away, toward the oranges and Kashmiri apples, stacked high in American-looking cartons (brought in on the long handcarts).

“He said ‘target,’ you’re a ‘target!’” the woman said to White Hunter.

I watched them walk on, their pale legs incongruously soft amid the hundreds of muscular worker legs around them. They walked against the flow, forcing the porters to dodge them. Behind them, wringing his hands and gesturing to other market workers, the little man followed at a distance, watching on their behalf.

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Travel in India

Bombay, Decayed

I came down to Pune by slow train after a dispiriting week in squalid, sad Bombay with its endless maze of tired lanes. The city has decayed noticeably in the last forty years, its resources sucked away by gleefully corrupt officialdom, spring cleaning forgotten.

India is eating itself, as many countries including the U.S. are, but on a grander scale, and shamelessly: no one in the city has clean, municipally-provided water, the sewage is untreated, the streets and bridges are crumbling and choked with blaring, blaring traffic. Every surface, even in the back corridors of the grand hotels, is filthy and coated, for the idea of cleanliness has not taken hold here; the listless sweeping that moves surface trash is performed to village standards by low-caste workers wielding brooms.

Rickshaw drivers still point tourists to the dhobi ghat, the massive thousand-tub laundry that boils sheets for Bombay hotels and shirts and saris and bright cloth from across town brought and returned by long-cart, and it is still guarded by a pimp of an attendant who demands Rs. 200 for entrance, to be distributed to the workers, he says, though the workers I spoke to there 20 years ago spit with contempt and called that claim a lie.

And the drivers still mention the famous Jehangir Art Gallery, a half-hour walk north in Rupee-rich Colaba from the Gateway, but the once-proud gallery, founded in 1952 by Sir Cowasji Jehangir, Second Baronet, has become a slum (as below), its managers’ offices littered with trash, with old signs to non-existent exhibits and nothing on the hand-smudged walls but mall art.

Jehangir Gallery

The tourists go to such places in air-conditioned buses and emerge into pools of professional beggars, whining, touching, holding out stumps for inspection and pinching babies to make them scream.

In the past I stayed at the $4 or $5 Salvation Army Hostel, the Red Shield, just behind the Taj Mahal hotel, where presidents and various satraps stay, but it reeks now, infected by Bombay sloth. In 1976, when I first encountered it, it was commanded by a beefy Salvation Army major from Bristol who inspected surfaces for dirt and dared anyone to disregard her commands to behave as 19th-century methodists. (It was created in the 19th century to lure merchant seamen from the lanes of prostitutes.)

Under the current regime it’s not been cleaned or painted in years, the price for a single has shot up to $30, and I concluded on my last trip that the shower rooms were too dirty to shower in.

More important than the current grime, routine in India, the charming Red Shield mix of stoners and bewildered middle class Indians and humorless Western seekers after religious truth has disappeared from the dining room, leaving just too-familiar, non-talking flick readers peering at their phone.

Bombay, though, for a long walker, is unchanged in essence. It is much dirtier than it was, terribly expensive for the poor, filled now with cars and trucks, the air thick, and morning in the lanes is enlivened less by roosters than by men loudly clearing their throat and spitting. And in the maze of poor streets north from Colaba’s Potemkin shine, where bustees lean against old warehouses and children play in sewage-filled gutters, the people who have nothing remain hospitable and tolerant of a curious visitor.

They were never visitors to Jehangir.

Bombay lane, Kamathipura

And in those lanes, one can still find a thumb-washed glass of hot milk chai for 10 rupees and sit on an abutment and watch the neighborhood come awake.

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2014, Bad hotel, Travel in America, Travel in India

June 26, 2014, Snug in Ann Arbor

 

My flights from Little Rock to Detroit on June 21 got held up by thunderstorms that stopped Chicago’s drain. Several hundred of us arriving from here and there to the airport on the prairie spent the night on cots in Terminal 3 at O’Hare.

My months over the winter of crossing south India on trains, buses, motor scooters, rickshaws and on foot bubbled up as I walked O’Hare’s Musak-coated corridors at midnight.

India is dirtier, but even at its worst—I’m thinking here of the Marsan Lodge on Indira Gandhi Road in Chennai, samosas stacked and restacked by unwashed hands and a profligacy across Tamil Nadu and Kerala of open sewage canals —it was more appealing. We American whites, initially fortunate in the vastness and richness of a continent lightly inhabited by quickly exterminated aborigines and wildlife and built by slave labor, are well along in the creation of the landscape we deserve.

I was in a bad mood. American Airlines and its mumbling versipel, Envoy, which flies narrow tubes with stubby wings under the name of American Eagle, had been gum-chewers with cattle prods all day, herding us up and down the chute with corporate certainty: GET ON THE PLANE NOW WELCOME BACK TO LITTLE ROCK HAVE A WONDERFUL DAY WELCOME BACK AGAIN SUCKERS GET ON THE PLANE NOW!

Beyond the churlishness of flight attendant Vanessa and the Okie gate woman in Little Rock chewing three sticks of gum and later a breathing but cardboard gate woman in Chicago, I had a bad blister on my right foot from clambering the day before up and down Ozark mountains, and the chiggers had gotten me, and I’d fallen into poison ivy.

By the time knees-in-face 3259 got to Chicago, all the connections were void, and after eyeing a block-long line at McDonalds in Concourse K and having been refused a ride on one of the electric carts that buzz up and down, though I was hopping on one foot, I bought a regular-size Snickers bar for $2.13 and settled in for the night.

We forget quickly, so it is necessary to record these end-of civilization experiences for Jean Luc Picard to recover half a millenium down a narrowing road from our possum-filled ruins.

We’d backed out of the gate in Little Rock a half-hour late at 3:20, waited long enough for passenger bleating on the runway, went back for more fuel, waited again, went back again with no clear explanation to the terminal and finally  rushed onto the plane again to avoid losing our window out  at 7 p.m. American wanted to get us to Chicago, despite their blinking computers chuckling we would all be stranded there.

The waits had their amusing moments. During our first long delay, an attractive frost-headed publicist escorting a gangly teenage producer of something, mentioned to Vanessa,  a lemon-sucker throughout the long day, that Gangle’s seat wouldn’t stay up. Vanessa sent Frosty back up the jetway to get a seat reassignment from the gate woman, who slammed the door in her face and chased her back to the plane, by which time the pilot, who had been morosely silent, told us Chicago was now closed. Vanessa loudly blamed the publicist, “that woman in the sparkly jacket,”  so when she returned, blinking long eyelashes from the abuse at the gate, she was met with glares. She protested her innocence with shakes of her hair. “Shut up!” the man beside me in 8A told her, then bent again to his fluttery iphone.

Four hours later, when Chicago opened, a ground crew man in overalls took the mike at the gate, as decisive as Dick Cheney. If we didn’t have wheels up by 7, he blared as though we were resisting, we couldn’t fly, so MOVE IT MOVE IT MOVE IT!

We trotted down the jetway—“jetway!” “concourse!” “Wheel’s up!” “Device!” (the plastic thing that will supposedly drop from the plastic ceiling when American cuts off the oxygen in mid-flight to pay for a vice-president’s pedicure)… Avoid all enterprises wrapped in jargon!—in plenty of time for that seven o’clock lift-off, and then waited, and waited, and waited, while bleary standbys staggered one by one onto the plane.

At 7:15, we pushed back and after a while lifted off and then after an hour and 18 minutes touched down. WELCOME TO CHICAGO’S O’HARE TERMINAL THE LOCAL TIME IS LATE LATE LATE ABANDON HOPE ALL YE WHO ENTER HERE.

My flight to Detroit had gone (or the plane was repainted and traded to Qatar Air for a night at the casino). What to do?

The Agent, an unhappy, sweating man at the end of a long, long line, shrugged. Not his problem. He handed me a blue slip from his stack, from a company cleverly called Travelliance: PASSENGER PAY ROOM – DISCOUNT COUPON.

Travelliance, I’ve learned on my computer, is a “global leader” in what it does.

Buried in the fine print was a phone number. It led to a phone menu, Muzak, and finally a far-away voice from a meth addict telling me none of the hotels which my airline and Travelliance had “organized” at an unspecified “discounted rate” had any rooms.

Addict, responding to my “but?” sent me to a customer service specialist who hid behind Muzak and a promise every 30 seconds of an immediate appearance, for 12 minutes and 16 seconds. Where was I? Specialist asked, not having been briefed. Chicago? No rooms in Chicago. Click.

American, its single glowing eye on its next quarterly, had by then sent all the gate agents but one home. She wouldn’t talk and was surly for having to stay. If you won’t talk to me, who will? I asked. Where’s an agent? “Walk around until you find one,” she said.

The terminal, encountering airline-abandoned passengers for the first time, improvised. At midnight, a group of workers just out of the big house began putting up cots, very close together, near K-1. A long line waited, eyed by guards, each person clutching a white pillow and a thin blanket.

A pleasant couple near me, he a worker with the blind, she a teacher of autistic children suffering from cancer, began to move their cots to a quieter area. A cop interfered. “You can’t do that. Get back over there with the others!” he pointed, then returned his thumbs to his belt.

He was a burly man in his forties. No stripes. Working the midnight shift at the airport. I didn’t ask why. He answer was certain: “Because you can’t!” I recognized him from ’68, still wearing the black Chicago cop shirt, his voice an industrial grind. He was the one who hit the woman in a wheel-chair with his truncheon. I waited until he turned away to pick his nose and slid my cot behind the gate structure at K-2.

“They said you can’t do that,” the couple said, concerned that I’d be taken to the cellar.

As I lay there, my foot throbbing, waiting in dim slumber to be rousted, the brazen lights and corporate noise slapping at me, I nearly wept that the couple had gone without struggle to the cot pen. Resistance to this crass new world is our duty. When did we become so easily managed, or has it always been so? I covered my head with the thin blue blanket and wondered why the feeling surged over me as I waited for the cop, “What fun!”

At four a.m., the inmates roused everyone and took the cots down. Why so early? Because, one told me.

At the Marsan Lodge, the clerk, who ran a few girls on the side, tried to add 30 percent to the bill so he could pocket it, and he wouldn’t give me a towel or blanket, no matter how foul, until I lifted my walking stick and eyed his forehead.

My night at Marsan was better than O’Hare. I understand pimps. All night at O’Hare the taped warnings went on with Gitmo intensity. Don’t do this, or that. Don’t smoke, or else. Tell the TSA about metallic things. Don’t leave your car unattended! CNN would not shut up: a woman with pretty thighs. Bright lights to prevent the theft of ranks of gray unadjustable chairs. Two dollar Snickers. An overweight black woman limping behind her cleaning cart. Captains in their white shirts, all walking fast and thumbing their phone.

 

 

 

Getting Back

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2013, 2014, Cheap Travel in India, Chief Minister (Governor) Selvi J. Jayalalithaa., Foreign in India, India and public health, Indian government incompetence, Madurai, Travel in India, Travel in Tamil Nadu, Unromanticized travel, White in India

Rich, White and Foreign in India

Rich, White and Foreign in India.

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2013, 2014, Cheap Travel in India, Chief Minister (Governor) Selvi J. Jayalalithaa., Foreign in India, Indan press incompetence, India and public health, Indian government incompetence, Madurai, Photos from South India, The Ordinary in India, Travel in India, Travel in Tamil Nadu, Unromanticized travel, White in India

Rich, White and Foreign in India

March 21-22 2014, MADURAI

I plan my walks from Google Maps. I scrutinize satellite images for narrow lanes, rail lines, a river or sewage canal—the cramped streets where small houses touch.

The better-off in all Indian cities live invisibly behind high walls. In the crowded neighborhoods, doors are open in the morning from small rooms. Life spills into the streets. Roosters crow. Carts rumble. A woman hacks her throat clear. The milk man calls from his bicycle.

It’s a stumbling walk each morning into streets that touch ancestral memory,

Women make their trip to the neighborhood pump with 20-liter plastic jugs in red or purple or white or stripes, men sit on the ledge outside their door and read the newspaper and smoke. A man brushes his teeth on his top step and spits into the sewer gutter. A woman squats to pee by the tracks. Kids in blue/white or red/brown or grey/white school uniforms appear. It is respectable to come out pressed and shiny. In the poorest streets, they are barefoot, and the uniforms are hand-me-downs.

Ellis Nagar, Madurai

Ellis Nagar, Madurai

Raw sewage, moving slowly in dirt or concrete channels, is never far away. The air smells of it and of the urine on walls and smoke from wood grills and garbage fires and tea shops and incense a woman is wafting beneath the encrusted tail of a brown cow that has been painted with bright hand prints and devils. The air is never fresh.

Pools of sewage are close to homes

Pools of sewage are close to homes

Inside a door this morning, a uniformed girl sat on the floor while her grandmother fixed her hair. At another house a sour-looking laborer scrubbed his sudsed, wiggling little boy on a slab by the door and gave him a smack to improve his cooperation. In a deep ditch between two walls, half covered by a plastic trash bag,  a white dog was dying, shaking, eyes closed, whimpering to herself like an abused child. Just past a stand of rickshaws,  a huge man blocked my path and said in a small voice, “What is your sweet name, please?” Three huge hogs round a house corner just in front of me to root in garbage. A dog runs at me snarling.

India has millions of tiny shops. In the neighborhoods they are little groceries, corner idli and vada shops, tea stands. The grocery stalls have detergent, water, pop, festoons of packaged crunchy snacks, cigarettes sold individually and jars of penny candy. Children run to them on errands.

Women stop to talk. Men buy a tiny cup of steaming tea and eat a quick breakfast for 20 rupees. A cow or two, some goats, are tied nearby or saunter by. Dogs lounge indolently. Rickshaws cluster. The reek of sewage rises from the ditch. Vegetable vendors have their mats spread and the tomatoes and peppers or coconuts displayed. The fruit carts appear. Conversation is everywhere, laughter, the chain-saw tuk-tuk-tuk and horn blare of rickshaws, clucking chickens and a too-loud radio from a doorway.

The vegetables and bright fruits and the saris and the pink and orange walls give color to the shabby steet. Women make the wide-legged peasant bend and draw the day’s rangoli on the lane before the door. Municipal cleaners rake garbage into piles for burning, or to be taken away in carts for burning. A little boy of three defecates in the dirt 10 feet from his doorway, bending his head to watch the progress. Old women and men sit on the pavement or on age-blackened steps, staring at nothing. Escape seems unlikely.

These streets are not much visited by outsiders. I have never seen a Western tourist in them, and official India, including the limp-wristed press, ignores them.

I create a stir as I walk, much as I did snorkeling beyond the reef in the Red Sea, where the fish patterns would dissolve as I approached. It is not hostile, but it is watchful and wary.

I have learned this slowly. The shadow at the door is a woman watching, there an old man, the three men at the tea stand, the woman on the balcony, the man in the grocery stall.

I am closely watched.

They watch, but their first inclination is friendly.

Ellis Nagar, Madurai, March 2014

Ellis Nagar, Madurai, March 2014

Live in Indian hotels, as I have for months, and it’s difficult not to conclude that most Indians are listless, heedless and unresourceful. Such are India’s middle managers and company reps, those who people the hotel world.

In the neighborhoods, however, people, speaking large, are more generous to a stranger.  They have the grace politeness confers; their deference is sincere.

Of India’s many curses of self-indulgence, deference to  foreign, deference to rich and deference to white rank high, close to corruption.

It may be that the powerless are deferential, polite with a thin Potemkin politeness, because they have learned their lot is to be subordinate. Yet in these raggedy streets “they” are not uniformly anything. The weasels are easy to spot, as they are anywhere, the clean and the dirty, the quick to smile and the pimps (for here is where you go if you are looking for sex, whatever your awful predeliction), the stalwart and the respected.

Most return my namaskar greeting, the hands together in front of the chest in the Indian equivalent of “salaam alaikem.” Boys of 8 or 9 run up and say, “Hello how are you I am fine.”

My nationality is important because it confirms I’m from away, where conditions are better.  I say “USA” or  “America,” and they approve, “Ah.” But I have been German and French and Italian and even English, and they said “Ah” in exactly the same way.

No one objects to my presence, and when I stop, seeing a face or texture , I’m quickly hemmed in and pawed by the kids, who call, “Photo, photo,” so I will take their picture. One mother points to another, saying I must take her. Honor her, she says. Grandmothers appear with infants. I shoot, smilingly and pompously dispensing beneficence, as deference insists I must.

My camera has a good view screen. I punch up the shots I just took of the baby, the mother and all the kids, and the kids next door, and I can zoom in on a face and give that person a pat. They crowd in to see under the shade of my hand. No one asks for money.

They look to recognize themselves, and then they smile and thank me, “Super!” I give the little girl who’s pulling too hard on the camera a light smack and say, “Hold on,” for it seems that’s the right thing to do. I give the grandmother’s shoulder a squeeze. Touching seems the right thing to do, for men and women, boys and girls. I shake hands and give half hugs and squeezes and pats. I bask in Tahitian smiles. As I walk on, trailed to lane’s end by 10 or 12 small kids, I’m Pied Piper. One always asks for my pen; all of them are excited. The teenagers we pass are blase.

"Photo, photo"

“Photo, photo”

Celebrity politicians may pass through once every few years in a motorcade, and great seers come to town, but I am the most rare Important Visitor. I take notice. I walk the bustee lanes and speak as I can to individuals and hug pretty little girls and joke with teenage boys and say “Oooh” at babies and shake my finger at a barking dog just as they do, and jump the same streams of sewage.

I speculate, that is, that unfair though it is, I have influence by birth and circumstance somehow to encourage a neighborhood’s prettiest face, as a teacher can  lift shy students, as a priest can bless a life.

My presence and photographs of generations of family and neighbors, all the happy kids—dim images on a view screen in bright sunlight—affirm I think that I have noticed and may remember.

South Madurai bustee, March 22, 2014, about 8 a.m.

South Madurai bustee, March 22, 2014, about 8 a.m.

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2013, 2014, Bad hotel, Cheap Travel in India, Indian bathrooms and showers, Rameshwarum, Shooting midgets, Travel in India, Travel in Tamil Nadu, Unromanticized travel

The Shower Conundrum (or: The Inexplicable Shooting of a Midget)

The Shower Conundrum (or: The Inexplicable Shooting of a Midget).

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