American fascism, Donald Trump, Travel in India, Travel in Maharashtra, U.S. from afar

From India: Donald Trump and His New Niggers

Kohlapur, Maharashtra

I met a big man in Saskal Badali, a village in western Maharashtra south of the Dickensian grime of Phaltan. Someone told him a foreigner was in town taking pictures, and he came out to tend to his interests. The villagers who had clustered around me and Babu, my tuk-tuk driver, made themselves smaller as he walked up in his shiny whites.

He had a small retinue, unsmiling. His swagger was Trumpish, or it just reminded me, for Donald Trump is visible, moreso every day, even from here.

He is not so famous in India as chest-pounding American wrestlers on morning TV, but his threats have drawn attention. In an analytical piece about North Korea’s proud claim to have exploded a hydrogen bomb (Indian Express, Jan. 11, 2016), Andray Abrahamian mentioned the worrying distortions of American foreign policy in an election year. “The multiplicity of remaining candidates will have a chance to talk tough about North Korea,” he wrote, “criticizing past administrations while offering implausible solutions, if they offer any at all. If current patterns hold, Donald Trump will say something particularly ridiculous and everyone else will have to react.”

India has one of the world’s largest Muslim populations, so Trump’s promise to close the borders to them has also stirred unease, as did his comment that he could gun down someone in public and not lose a vote.

The village big man’s broad face was deeply lined and an unnatural color from lightening chemicals; his hair was glossily black. Up close, it looked as sticky as shoe polish, and his Phantal stylist had colored even the skin of his hairline, making it black as well. The overall effect was that sought by Chinese politicians: a virile Las Vegas agelessness.

He was the local money lender, “very wealthy,” Babu said later in a hushed voice, and even I, who was flush and didn’t need a loan, felt his menace.

Reinhold Niebuhr speaks of “the little amenities which have always veiled the nakedness of the lust for power,” and the nod and friendly smile of the thug (late payments are discouraged here with beatings) was one. I was a passing spectacle, something to give to his beholden at a bearable cost—a Christmas goose, a year-end bonus, a common enemy.

Unexpected encounters on these Indian backroads stir analogy. If he lived among us, the money lender would wear a business suit and a thin smile: he has become wealthy by exploiting weakness.

America’s hallelujahs in support of our central myth have room for him. We have believed in Progress—change, bigger, better—a gospel for the left and the right, the one expecting human advancement, the other demanding ever more efficient systems.

Atomized as we have become, each buzzing within a cubicle, the tribal abbreviations of who we are offer vital comforts: Packers fan; second amendment frontiersman; Catholic; senior citizen; quilter; patriot; corporate gee-whizzer…. They cloak our fears with illusions of community.

We are frightened. We’ve become a timid people, afraid to walk at night; afraid of losing our job; afraid of missing the game; afraid of strangers on the block, and we yearn, more fiercely now with our flickering screens always on, for inclusion and for salvation.

Beyond the usual celebrity adulators, our self-abasing needy seek the heroic overturner, and in our country, which reads no more than is necessary, a champion: Shane, Dirty Harry in new clothes. The savior blows in as a remedy for incompetence or injustice: Barack Obama was a repudiation of the dumbness of the lesser Bush, as Dwight Eisenhower provided post-Roosevelt calming and John Kennedy relief from Eisenhower dullness.

Trump’s confidence seems from his staging as reassuring as a revival: he is the newest prize in the cereal box. George Wallace, a 60’s bogey-man, promised to curb Washington social engineering when the unfamiliar uppityness of blacks and the irreverence of hippies threatened the foundations of known America; and Gene McCarthy promised a return to the prudence of the Eisenhower era after a decade of Democratic militaristic recklessness that has altered, as he and Eisenhower warned it would, the American psyche.

We’re always on the lookout for a champion.They come and then fade away.

Trump, from that perspective, is perhaps most analogous to Louis Farrakhan. He is without experience in government or public service of any kind and promises not restoration but an uprooting that would replace the clumsy compromises of government with his certainties. He promises war and a further bolstering of the police and the military, which he holds close as a personal militia. And, unambiguously, he urges the exclusion of large groups—Mexicans, refugees, Muslims and all who question him—from the social compact.

Republican Party functionaries, stripped of an intelligible philosophy of government other than self-perpetuation but sharing his fondness for menace, pretend an equal fierceness, curs in his pack.

It isn’t necessary to question his sincerity or even to wonder overmuch if his pronouncements emerge from long reflection, as Nehru’s and Mandela’s emerged from long imprisonment, or if they are merely opportunistic.

When fear and insecurity, meanness, are widespread as they are now in America, the field is open to a skillful demagogue, and, like him or loathe him, Trump has found his fans. He dismisses cautions about complexity. That’s for wimps. His steely gaze, his years of experience in the financial back alleys of Manhattan and Jersey, have prepared him to shoot forward to a new era uncrimped by Constitutional niceties.

The social restraints enjoyed in Saskal Badali, the village traditions and expectations, are far in our past. The big man there knows the limits. But we left the village more than a century ago and are tethered to social order now only by habit: the game on Sunday, its rules; the requirements of job; the need for that job no matter how unsatisfying its gruel; family, often broken now and dispersed; the sad digital fantasy communities that engage millions.

Our politicians belong on the list, for they reassure us that the aptly-titled “system” which pays them generously still works despite the cracks in the floor, the gunfire in the streets, the undrinkable water, the wages that guarantee poverty, the schools that don’t school. And the worst among them take it a step further by identifying an enemy: the others.

This too is nothing new: Delenda est Carthago! We, the politically attuned, expect a calming lies ahead after the foolishness of the primaries, but it is prudent to grasp that we are not immunized by our myth of exceptionalism from real horror.

Sebastian Haffner recalls in his valuable memoir of the period, Defying Hitler, that as late as 1930, ordinary Germans, and he includes himself, dismissed Adolph Hitler as a low-class buffoon: “His personal appearance was thoroughly repellent—the pimp’s forelock, the hoodlum’s elegance, the Viennese suburban accent, the interminable speechifying….” Hitler’s bluster would soon be forgotten. Germany was dull, bureaucratized, clerk-ridden and politically incoherent, but it was not reckless.

Trump promises not horror, but relief and a return to better days, the days of our carefree childhood, with supper always on the table. Just step aside for a moment.

The little amenities themselves comfort us: the identical suits with the American flag cherry-on-top worn by American politicians, the public adoration of “democracy” and “freedom” regardless of the conduct the slogans justify, the good lighting for debates, the fawning network hacks, the careful hair, the doting family, the populist grin and wave of inclusion.

We should be warned. We have seen this play repeatedly, recently enough to be instructed: Mao’s cultural revolution, Pol Pot, Idi Amin, a series of thugs across South and Central America, ISIS, our own conflagrations to no purpose but death in Vietnam and Iraq, our acceptance of torture and the hideous living entombment of perceived current enemies by our home-grown, low-browed jailers.

The tissue of what we think of as civilized life is thin, and we must take seriously that an American Wannsee is not unthinkable, not when the entire slate of Republican candidates and the Democratic Party apparatchiki stand mute or softly clucking as Trump casually suggests deporting 11 or 12 or 13 million illegal residents.

The police presence necessary to pull that off would be pervasive. As the illegals are hidden, the door bangings and checking of papers would disrupt and terrorize many neighborhoods, including neighborhoods where the police are even now reviled as thugs. What would become of the rounded-up illegals’ property, and who would make such decisions, using what criteria? What to do with the American children of illegals? Would the legal rights of those rounded up be abrogated completely, allowing the trains to dump them at the nearest border, and, if not, would they be incarcerated while their case, just one of many millions, was adjudicated; and if incarcerated, where would those camps be, and under whose authority?

Haffner’s sense of the 1930 Hitler fits Trump, but Haffner wrote his memoir to berate, belatedly, his own inability to believe what his intellect and his moral sense had told him, that human evil was afoot and could thrive, despite its beer-hall coarseness.

Trump, crude and coarse, is easily dismissible, too, and we discount him because we have had regular stirrings of American fascism. They are seemingly short-lived.

Now, aside from Trump, it is the timidity of his opponents, Democrat and Republican, that is worrying. They may find him repulsive, but they fear alienating the unreadable, unhappy masses. They know their prosperity, too, requires a myth, and with Progress untenable, the discovery of new niggers might be the way to go.

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Keeping Clean in India

KOLHAPUR–I made it back to my hotel, just, stomach churning from the hotel’s plain omelet this morning, I think. The kitchen is mediocre at best, but I haven’t had a problem before with an omelet. Today, I could take only a couple of bites. It was rancid.

Whatever. Maybe it was one of a hundred other things, or just a malevolent stray bacterium adhering to something I touched–a tea cup rim, or the silverware lying flat on the omelet, placed there neatly by the unsoaped, sweet-acting waiter, a wall outside, a public monument.

I am fond of India, but it is overly mild to call it exasperating.

I had taken a tuk-tuk (which this miserable uninstructable auto-correct always wants to turn into yuk-yuk) west to the celebrated Gandhi Maidan, a dusty open area just east of Lake Rankala. The lake is a a 400-acre waist-deep body of water presented on maps as blue, though it is a stew of sewage and trash. But, legs crossed and breathing shallowly, I made it back, and safe at last, relieved, I was soon sitting as usual after an excursion on the plastic stool in the shower, scrubbing my feet.

My shower, Hotel Pearl, Kolhapur

I lather them with soap and wash carefully between my toes with my indispensable fingernail brush. The bottoms are more difficult, and though I do this at least twice a day and scrub my sandals, also with bar soap, or laundry detergent or shampoo, my heels remain nearly black, even after the fingernail brush. When I rinse the suds off, the water runs dark to the drain.

I wear sandals instead of shoes because I can kind of clean the sandals. The shoes, after my months of walking in Indian cities, down slum lanes and the much dirtier main streets, would be poisonous by now. I keep them in my pack, all clean, and I’d turn to my flip-flops before lacing them up.

I make these notes because in a few months, back home, I will have forgotten how dirty it is here. It may seem unnecessary to mention, comparable to pointing out that Saudi Arabia is intolerant or that the dog pound at Cleveland games lacks a sense of fair play. But the filth is deep and pervasive and Indians are oblivious to it. That’s interesting.

I’ve seen squalor in many places, including individual apartments in our inner-city slums, or in the Middle East, where trash and garbage is pitched over the wall and forgotten. In Kuwait, the rats scurried in the piles at night, but the Kuwaitis hired workers from Bangladesh and Yemen and Egypt to pick it all up. Here, it just moulders where it falls.

Northward on public road adjacent to Rankala Lake, Kolhapur

The trash–the plastic bags and sugar cane stalks and wires and discarded flip-flops, more plastic, snack packaging, broken machines–is everywhere. It fills the parks and the sewage trenches, blows across the maidan, and rims  the lake, which has crumbling pavilions and battered fences suggesting a cleaner past; and grotesque as it is, the trash is the most bearable of the dirt.

Public road at Rankala Lake, Kolhapur

The streets are uncleaned, except with whisks, and the sidewalks, the public walls, every empty lot. I don’t mention this just to be an impolite visitor but to highlight the self-imposed degradation to which humans can become accustomed. As I sit in my hotel room now, writing, the room smells of burning garbage from the lot next door.

An image I can’t push out of my mind is from relatively clean Baramati, Swiss-like in comparison to Bombay or Pune or most of Tamil Nadu. I stayed in the plush Baramati Club in a wealthy neighborhood. It was about a half mile on narrow streets past new apartment buildings to the main road, where I could catch a tuk-tuk into town. Returning one afternoon, I saw two professional men standing on an apartment balcony, talking. One finished a Pepsi, and without looking or pausing in conversation, he pitched it to his left down into the empty lot next door. I glanced over the wall. He had done it before, often. He was a pudgy man who apparently drank a lot of soft drinks and ate chips and other snacks, and the rest of the building’s garbage was there as well, a corner of it smoldering, a nasty smell that even beyond the urine smell from convenient walls and alleys across the country is the most familiar smell of India. India is burning garbage, urine, and fumes from millions of scooters and cycles and tuk-tuks and fuming buses with slick tires, spit, uncleaned public toilets, raw sewage. Pigs were rooting in the Pepsi drinker’s heap.

But it is the surfaces that are unavoidable, caked with decades of dirt, embedded grime, never washed–the streets, the buses, the walls, the rubbly roadsides.

The crumbling pavilion at Rankala Lake, Kolhapur

It’s fair to generalize about such things. The cleaning, in the hotels where I stay, on the streets, in the parks, in every public place, is done by the very poor. They usually have nothing but a whisk. They seldom have soap or other equipment. They have no training, and no supervision. If they’re workers on city property, they’re often hired by private contractors who take the contract money, kick back some to the corrupt officials who awarded the contract, and then cheat the workers of a portion of their tiny wages. The workers go through the motions, but they spend much of their  time sitting, having by their presence relieved other Indians of a need to look at what they’re walking in.

Most surfaces here, even in my cleanish hotel room, are infectious. I bought a couple of cleaning rags when I arrived and scrub as well as I can when I arrive in a new room. I do it daily, obsessed I suppose it might seem to the unexposed like a latter day Howard Hughes, and I use a sanitizing hand cleaner from Kroger and otherwise wash my hands again and again. My sanitizer is supposed to have a citrus scent, but when I put it on it outside it has a smell of urine.

I watched poor women this morning, all of them barefoot, wash clothes in the lake, just beside the happily gurgling water buffalo who were being scrubbed by their tender. I wash my own clothes here by hand, and I have a routine. I put my underwear and T-shirt from the day before, shorts if needed, in the five gallon bucket which is in every hotel bathroom. I add a small packed of Tide or Surf and suds it up for a minute, then go to breakfast. When I come back, after an hour, I slush for another two minutes in the suds, pour out the brown water and rinse for several more minutes under the running water. It works. I can do the same to myself.

Women washing clothes in lake

At Rankala Lake, Kolhapur

The women arrive with a large basin of clothes (never any bedsheets or towels). They wet them in  the basin, and some add soap such as I use, but they can’t take the time to soak. They would be there all day. They smack the shirts or pants or once-bright sari cloth on the rocks, or twist them up and rub them hard on the rocks, then rinse in the lake water. They work at it, but the clothes are never cleaned, and on the streets most people look dingy.

Because they have no space at home, the women often dry the clothes by stretching them out flat on the trash-covered, pissed-upon dirt by the lake, or, in other towns, on the river bank.

Washing buffaloes and clothes, Rankala Lake, Kolhapur

Another image, and a fair one, I think, is from Phaltan, a town of Dickensian grimness south of Baramati. Adjacent the pleasant Hotel Jeet Paradise in a relatively prosperous neighborhood, the kids play cricket on a rutted empty lot ringed with trash and piles of burning garbage. It doesn’t occur to anyone, the proprietors of the hotel, the fathers who take their children there to play, to clean it up, and so a boy running after the bouncing ball jumps without thought over piles of trash and skirts rubble and avoids as he can the piles left by the neighborhood cows.

And, interestingly, on Indian television, the streets are alway clean and the peasants newly washed, just as, I suppose, our commercial images–perky, bright acting employees of Wal-Mart or Burger King–depict what we want to be true.

I think it’s related, or it seems so from my perspective: In today’s Indian Express and Times of India, which often print the same stories, a small article mentioned that 80 percent of the graduates of India’s thousands of engineering schools are unemployable, because they have no useful skills. That’s deplorable, of course, and the papers clucked disapprovingly today–standards must be raised! They have the same tone when, as today, “a shocking incident,” arises, they conclude, from the stress of failed exams or college debt (three female students at the Yoga and Naturopathy college at Chinna Salem in Tamil Nadu, despairing at their inability to pay “exorbitant fees,” jumped into a well  yesterday and died). Tomorrow another two or three engineering schools will open, and more students or debt-ridden farmers will commit suicide.

Filth and and public graft are flip sides of the same coin (e.g., Flint, Michigan).

One must acknowledge that the same conditions exist at our own proliferating diploma mills, which hand out worthless degrees in return for a quick buck, though our diminished sense of public honor may lead less often to suicide.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A Walk in Vicharimalnagar, Kolhapur

In Vicharimalnagar, a poor district in Kolhapur a half-mile north of my hotel, a walk on Saturday morning, Jan. 23, was uneventful. A man said hello, I stopped, and a crowd formed. I walked on. A man waved. I stopped. A crowd formed. Boys. Another crowd. A mother and her baby… Finally, back close to my hotel, the prosperous owner of an animation/rotoscopy business said hello and invited me in for tea:

Vicharimalnagar district, Kolhapur

Vicharimalnagar district, Kolhapur

Vicharimalnagar district, Kolhapur

Vicharimalnagar district, Kolhapur

Vicharimalnagar district, Kolhapur

Vicharimalnagar district, Kolhapur (Siddik, (L) and Svayam)

Vicharimalnagar district, Kolhapur

Vicharimalnagar district, Kolhapur

Vicharimalnagar district, Kolhapur

Ricky Jadhav, Prop. Creation Multimedia, New Shahupuri, Kolhapur (www.creationmultimedia.net

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Kolhapur Hurrah! ODF!

I will be here to see it not happen.

Kolhapur will be the first Maharashtran city to “Achieve 100% Target,” the Times of India said yesterday (Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2016), referring to ODF, with funding coming from “corporate social responsibility initiatives” (the city) as well as the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. It will happen by Republic Day on Jan. 26.

The Times of India, Jan. 19, 2016, p. 2

For those who have been living somewhere unplugged, “ODF” means “open defecation-free,” or, maybe, “open-defecation free.” Kolhapurians, by the end of the month will no longer PIP (Poop in Public).

The good word comes from Vijay Patil, Kolhapur’s chief sanitation inspector, who told the Times that four years ago over 1,150 families in the city of about 400,000 lacked a toilet, a number that has been reduced to 113 by “efforts undertaken through various goverment schemes and sensitising programmes.” He added that SBA (“Swachh Bharat Abhiyan” or “Clean India Mission”) money has been used to build public toilets for “around 27 families.” The story didn’t explain why that number was uncertain.

Public toilet, Kolhapur

SBA was begun by the Prime Minister a year ago and Kolhapur would have already made “the Smart City list,” but couldn’t last year, “owing to the open defecation cases.”

The story adds that 10 toilets for women have also been built on an unexplained BOT (“build operate and transfer”) scheme and plans are afoot for 20 more.

Mr. Patil didn’t detail the exact costs of each toilet, the drain on the city budget, the locations, or the style (Japanese modern? American standard? French pre-war?), and the Times didn’t ask. The story didn’t mention a CRPT (“Clean Reeking Public Toilets”) plan.

 

 

 

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Finding Christ in Kananagar

Kananagar, Kolhapur–Kolhapur, sometimes spelled Colapore, is an ancient city ruled until Independence as a princely state. It’s at the southwest edge of  Maharashtra less than a hundred kilometers from the coast, and this January, at least, the weather has been beautiful: sunny mid-80s during the day, low 60s at night.

Indian cities, sadly, are much alike: noisy and filthy, with few amenities such as sidewalks or–laughable–crosswalks for pedestrians.The main roads are clogged with unregulated traffic. The air is foul.

Kolhapur pedestrian in streetPedestrians walk in the street in Indian cities

But enough of that. I prefer the slums. For one thing, they make me feel rich, a new and pleasant feeling. And no traffic. Life spills into the street. Women wash clothes by dipping them in soapy water and banging them on a flat stone. They get water from the common pump and hear what’s going on, and they stare in groups, not unkindly, as I walk by. They bathe their small children outside from a bucket; the old men sit, and the crones. Workers wash in their underwear  with dippers of water over the head, and children in uniforms make their way to and from school in the neighborhoods where school is affordable.

The little kids look at me with big eyes. Cows and goats, listless dogs, an occasional cat, chickens, all go as they wish. A cow pinned me softly with her huge head today against a dumpster.  I smacked her! Again! Holy Cow, hell! She turned away as indifferently as she’d come.

Washing dishes,The age-old squat of the woman at work, Kananagar, Kolhapur

That was this morning. I’d walked back into Kananagar (“nagar” approximates what we would call a ward). It’s poor, ringed with sewage trenches, and the streets are dirt. I was there last week, just walking, taking pictures and talking as I could.

I met Agnes Francis that trip, and her neighbors. She invited me in for a cup of tea. Pictures of Christ looked down in Hindu array. The room otherwise was nearly bare. I took my sandals off at the door, as one does, and sat on one of two plastic chairs. Eight or 10 neighbors casually came in to get a look at a foreigner. Agnes Francis was quiet, and the others liked her. She touched them with kind pats.

Agnes Francis and neighbors, Kananagar, KolhapurAgnes Francis, left, and two neighbors

The neighbors were curious, but they didn’t gawk, nor did they ask questions. My story is that I’m a journalist traveling around India talking to people, writing about what I see and taking pictures. I use it though I’m writing only for myself. It gives me an excuse for wandering into neighborhoods where tourists never go.

I was drawn at first because Indian slums are spectacles, but they have become familiar. They are a refuge from the trafficky outside, and the people are far more pleasant than elsewhere.

I generalize, but here and in the States and Europe, though not in the Middle East, the poor are nicer than the rich. Here, they are a relief. India head-on is not otherwise a polite or hospitable country.

Today, mid-month, I met a gaggle of teenage boys, all with a hoodlum air–unwashed hair, dirty shirt, sunglasses dangling, a Brando sneer, gaudy watch band. They, too, have become familiar, so I said hello and spoke my little spiel, slowly. One of them told a little boy standing nearby in an orange hoody to go get someone, maybe the gang leader.

The hoodsConfronted by teenage hoods, Kananagar, Kolhapur

It was a small, reserved man who appeared. He eyed me, I thought, as though I were fair game. I looked for a wall to back against. He introduced himself: Pastor Suraj B. Kamble.

He took me to his small house, along with the squad of  hoods, all eyeing my American stuff.  I sat on the bed in the front room and soon a pretty teenage girl brought two cups of tea, one for him and one for me, and a plate of new biscuits from the corner grocery stall. He had a bit more English than the boys, but he had to reach into memory to find the words.

He was concerned I am not a Christian but openly shocked that I am an unbeliever. No proof exists of God, he said, but just as we can’t see the wind yet know it’s there, we must acknowledge God’s existence from the evidence of the natural world visible to us. And Christ taking human form to speak as he did was further evidence of divinity.

Kananagar, 1

Pastor Suraj B. Kamble, Kananagar, Kolhapur

But he didn’t proselytize vigorously. He wanted me just to enjoy my tea and cookies. The boys, it emerged, were his–he smiled–disciples. They had become Christians in the last year and stopped fighting each other and making trouble.

The nagar was mixed: Hindus, Muslims, Christians, and one atheist. Everyone got along, he said. No problems.  It was a neighborhood of workers, manual laborers, which is what Agnes Francis told me last week. Day laborers earning $2.50 a day when they can find work. Carrying. Digging. It was difficult at times to make ends meet, Agnes Francis said.

The Indian Express this morning had an article about retirement income. They discovered that Indians currently need about 35,000 rupees a month ($530) for a secure retirement. The workers in Kanan earn about 7,000 rupees a month when they have work, but that’s hit or miss. The money must support the old, too, and the young, and workers wear out early here.

In India, different worlds live next door. Just down the dirt road from Kananagar is GreenField complex–high new apartments behind a guarded gate. The girls walking there all have shoes.

I took some pictures. They took some pictures, and then Pastor and the boys walked me to their church on the southern edge of the cluster of houses, fronted by an open sewage ditch. It was a small, bare and airless room at the end of a much-divided pole barn, rented from a Christian “aunty” we met as we walked to it. He has 40 to 50 parishioners and is raising money to cut a garage-door opening in the end wall for comfort.

I waved goodbye, they waved, and I headed on the lane west toward GreenField, jumping two sewage trenches on the way.

Kananagar, 2

The hoods, Pastor Kamble and me, Kananagar, Kolhapur

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Christmas Eve in Thakuraki

Thakuraki, Maharashtra

They have no email, but they were pleased pictures of them and the village would go today to the United States.

A Phaltan cart vendor of cooking oil said something similar the other day. I’d motioned with my camera, Could I take a shot? Sure, he said,  it’s as close as I’ll ever get to America.

The village, Thakuraki (pronounced Thak-rooki), lies just west of Phaltan, past the long-abandoned British airport. Chickens and goats are common, a few buffalo are staked out, but the men aren’t farmers. They work as day laborers when they can find work, carrying, lifting, making Rs 300 in a ten-hour day, about 40 cents an hour.

Thak. The villaageThakuraki

The houses are small, mostly brick with solid roofs and two or three rooms and here and there a portico. They were built illegally, on government land, according to my tuk-tuk driver Baba. Subsequently, the government provided electricity and water pipes. “Because of human need,” he said. Short of going to City Hall, I had no way of checking his story.

The Nikalje family, the mother and her married daughter, Sukanya (Sukan-eeya), insisted I come in for a cup of tea, then daubed my forehead with a red Hindu mark of welcome. They touched my feet in welcome and presented me with a coconut, a white Nehru cap (they had a tiny cloth stall on their porch) and a nice piece of cloth to drape over my shoulders as a shawl. The men were off working.

Thak. coconutThe foreign guest

“You honor them with your visit,” Baba said.

I stopped because Sukanya of the pretty smile had pointed inside to her nephew, Amand, about 7, and said he was studying in “English medium.” I said hello to him, but he ran inside to hide, to shy to speak and then too stubborn to come out. While I took pictures of everyone in the family and of neighbors who came over to greet me, he hid in the back bedroom, poking his head around the corner but disappearing when I aimed the camera at him.

After half an hour, I was comfortable enough to follow him when he ran, to the delight of  the other little boys, and I got a few shots of him burrowed in a corner as Sukanya urged him to emerge by tugging on one leg. Finally, he came out, but he never found the courage to speak.

Thak. Sukanya and AmandNo, no

That was the job of Prasad Khude, about 11, a neighbor. He wore a purple T-shirt with the legend “cotton candy.” I was his first native speaker, but he was game and after an hour he was talking enthusiastically.

He is not a good student, he told me, and he doesn’t read much: “It makes me sleep.” He wants to visit America when he grows up.

When we left the Nikalje family, telling them abhari ahote, thank you, I grabbed Amand’s hand and said thank you again for the hat, the coconut, the shawl, the friendliness, and for Amand, and began to walk away. He came along for a few steps, comforted by the family’s laughter, and then his eyes got big. Take him, take him, Sukanya said.

I gave him a wave as Baba and I turned the corner. He smiled and raised a hand.

It was a beautiful day, Christmas Eve, with good-looking chickens running free (“one egg a day”). They retreat at night to a chicken house or are eaten by dogs or cats. During the day, the danger is from hawks.

On the far west side of the village, a shy woman accompanied by several teen-age girls appeared with a thin black kitten, stroking it affectionately. Its name was Money, meaning in Marathi not “money,” but “lucky.” “Black cat in home good luck,” Baba explained.

Thak. kittenThe kitten, Lucky

He is not comfortable with animals, and when a little boy brought out his two-month-old white puppy, jumping and biting as puppies do, Baba retreated, annoyed. I also admired a pretty green parrot in “the jail,” as Baba put it, a small cage brought outside for the morning sunshine.

Down a narrow lane on the north side, another family wanted to say hello, men, women and children, and I was drawn to a girl of about three, who puckered with anxiety as I patted her shoulder.

That happens from time to time. When it does, it eases the formality of welcome. I apparently make familiar soothing sounds. This little girl retreated to her mother’s hand and smiled from a distance; up close, I was too much.

Thak, little girlWary of a stranger

I posed for phone pictures with several men and for Prasad, an emphatic stager. He presented me with a plastic baby in a yellow karate outfit, a key ring, in return for my autograph.

“Read,” I told him, trying to pay my way. “Read.”

We left the village to friendly waves, smiles, as though I’d brought something of value.

I arrived without warning or reason and was welcomed as a visitor and a foreigner by villagers who didn’t think to question my humanity, a generosity now in retreat in my own fearful culture.

Such experiences, unexceptional here, raise the question of how valid our sense is of “backward” or “underdeveloped,” how descriptive of tone.

It was a good Christmas Eve.

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A good hotel, Bad hotel, Baramati, Doing Business in India, Foreign in India, Indian bureaucracy, Indian Hotels, Travel in India, Travel in Maharashtra, Unromanticized travel

Getting a Mobul

Baramati, December, 2015

I had my mobile epiphany—Get a phone!—as I walked in from Baramati’s east side on shade-dappled Canal Street to the junction downtown with the traffic circle and Cinema Street. I’d been talking with an ancient toothless man in a Nehru hat, watching boys swim and women from the Dalit huts pound clothes on the stone platforms at water’s edge, and I calmed four small children gleeful at having their picture taken. My feet were tired.

I’d resisted after my American phone proved to be expensively blocked, but an Indian  mobile would let me call ahead to my next hotel and improve the slim chance of finding an unbuggy refuge.

The Reliance shop was close to the junction in a joined line of tiny stores. Its sign in Marathi suggested it sold telephones and such gadgets. Inside, it was chilly; the neatly-dressed clerks in the shop, once they understood I wanted the minimum–No, not that big one!–had just the mobile for me (a basic Samsung Guru or Swirl, Blaze, maybe—I forget the name and have discarded the box), a tiny do-little-but-talk phone of the sort favored by tuk-tuk drivers.

“Just 1,100, sir.”

A day’s lodging, more, in the hotels I favor.

And a SIM card?

The clerks consulted the manager. The AC hummed.

The manager might have been a State Farm agent. His smile was practiced. He adjusted his glasses. “We require passport, sir, and document of residence, where you live…”

Outside, traffic honking honking, high schoolers on their way home shouting, tuk-tuks aswirling, black and yellow, all with untuned engines, cycles swerving, trucks, push carts, the laundry women each with a laundry bucket on her head, sometimes another on a hip, walking the half mile to their streets.

The documentation could be provided by my hotel. The manager took my hotel’s business card and spoke clearly, authoritatively, for a time. He had spoken, he told me as he deftly flicked off his extra-large phone, to the manager of my hotel. In fact, as I soon learned, he spoke to Gotsurya, the easily-baffled front desk clerk, a man destined to end his days in a dungeon.

“No problem, sir. Hotel give document. You come tomorrow with document and passport. We keep phone for you.” He put my Guru/Blaze back in its box and returned it to the display shelf.

I bought a kilo of tangerines and three bananas, fended off a street sleaze asking incomprehensible questions about my passport, his tongue flitting, then hailed a tuk-tuk for the two mile trip north to the Baramati Club, my upscale residence.

Gotsurya, in his mid-20s, dressed elegantly, as befits the front desk man at a plush club, rose to greet me, inclined his head and provided the key to one, one, one. Yes, he nodded. He had spoken to Reliance. “SIM not problem, sir.”

Could I get the document now?

Tomorrow, he said.

Why not now?

“Manager busy,” he said. “Tomorrow. Tomorrow come. Morning time.”

 

Day 2. After choking down a rubbery omelet and leaving the fancy club restaurant irritated because the waiters, engaged in weighty discussion, failed to bring a cup of tea, I gave a friendly hello to Gotsurya.

My SIM document?

“Busy now. Come half hour.” He scarcely looked up. The purple birthmark on his forehead was throbbing.

A half-hour? That wasn’t good. An omen. It meant he didn’t want to deal with a SIM document. Why not? Damn! He wouldn’t want to in 30 minutes. An empty promise in the land where a promise doesn’t rise to the level of inshallah. It was time to become stern.

I needed the document at once! We had arranged this yesterday! Did he not remember? Goddamnit!! (inaudible hiss.) Glare.

Ten minutes later, all afluster, he handed me a document. It was a blurred photo-copy of my passport pages, copied again from the copy they’d made when I checked in, for the police, to combat terrorism.

He is an idiot? No. He doesn’t know what to do, so he does something. He gives me a document. When it doesn’t work no one will trace the problem back to him.

No, no. No. No! Reliance needed proof I was staying in the hotel. As the man told you. I had my real passport for them. I didn’t need a copy! I patted my pack.

The sound of the conversation wandered slowly down the corridor like the water on my bathroom floor after a shower seeps to the floor drains, to management offices. After a time, Vikhram, an assistant manager and the sports facility director, appeared. He spoke some English and had been the one the previous day to tell me, sadly, that the large swimmerless swimming pool, inviting and a vivid Caribbean blue because of the blue tile, did not open until 4.

“Is being cleaned.”

Baramati Club pool, Not Open Until 4!Closed until 4:00

Well, no. It wasn’t. It rippled invitingly just below my open room window. It hadn’t been. No one had touched it. It was as clean as it was going to be.

“Four o’clock,” he said. “Sorry.”

Vikhram was a pleasant, soft-spoken man. I explained the SIM issue. He took the passport copy from me, winced and returned it to Gotsurya with a frown.

Gotsurya had perhaps not understood, he said. He had little English.

“Come,” Vikhram said. “I drive to shop.”

That was nice. He was being helpful.

We arrived in 20 minutes. It was another hot day. The manager explained the SIM procedure to Vikhram. I handed over my passport.

“Your document?” Vikhram said, holding out his hand. “He need residence document for SIM card.”

I had a bit of tangerine fiber caught between two teeth. I freed it with my tongue-tip. Outside, a straight-backed woman passed with a large laundry bucket on her head balanced with one arm; I breathed through my nose; a lorry, dressed as for Carnival, chugged out a cloud of diesel fumes.

Well, I said… I went over it again. I had no document. That was the reason for the discussion with Gotsurya after he misunderstood directions in Marathi from this man. I needed the document from the hotel, to get a SIM card. That was why we had come, to deliver the document. From the hotel.

Had someone put LSD in my tea? No, the restaurant at the Club couldn’t make tea, which was why I had to walk two kilometers to the main road to find a tea wallah…

Of course, of course. Vikhram seemed to see a spark in my eye. I could get a SIM card at any shop. No problem. We would go back now. Buy the phone, he instructed. Avoid another trip.

I bought it, though a mobile without a SIM card is a fish with no gills, a fan with no blades, a desk-clerk without a brain, an Indian restaurant without tea.

I stayed in town, walking, communicating adequately with people who spoke no English at all. I bought a billfold, a new watchband, and I had lunch in Bustee town from a roast-corn wallah, picking up my piping hot ear from the embers with the clean husks, using a lemon slice to lift salt from a small white saucer and rub it on the ear, delicious, and went back to the Club in time to shower for my four o’clock swim.

Roasting ears, Suhus Nagar,The roast corn was tasty

Vikhram, sitting now in the sports facility office beside the gym, searched fruitlessly for a towel for the pool. Perhaps I was its first human swimmer? Never mind, I said, I’ll dry in the sun. And, he added, replacing the stack of papers under which a towel could have been, “Problem with SIM card.”

The hotel, he regretted, could not provide such a document. Reliance required a residence, a document from someone which would verify I lived somewhere. In India. An employer, probably. Hotel was helpless.

Perhaps, I should speak to the manager, I said. I knew countless tourists with Indian SIM cards. I had sat beside a Japanese woman just the other day in Pune when she recharged hers. She was not working. She was a meditator, on vacation.

“Pune,” he said enigmatically. “Manager not here.”

I swam briskly in the odd 25-meter pool, three feet deep at one end, five at the other, surrounded by treacherous slick marble, not designed by a swimmer. Emerging, I found a large blue and white towel beside my shorts and flip-flops.

 

Day three. The Swirl/Guru is fine. Charged, it lights up. I had something like it 10 years ago. It is familiar. Samsung products are reliable. The manager is not available.

Does he work today?

Gotsurya. Later. Come back in half hour.

Does the man work at all (to myself)? Vikhram appears. Is the manager a grand raja? I wonder aloud, too grand for mere guests? Phone conversation. Return at 11. Manager will see you then.

Mr. Shetty was courtly: a portly man in his early 40s dressed in dark slacks and a white, pin-striped shirt. We said hello in the lobby and retired to his tiny office. He understood my problem. Some miscommunication had occurred. He was sorry, but the hotel, a “club,” owned by a “foundation,” a corporation, could not provide the SIM document. That was done by employer. And was there a problem with coffee in the morning? He had heard something. He did not eat in the restaurant, because the waiters all surrounded him, the manager, and ignored the guests. Manpower was difficult in Baramati, but he greatly wanted feedback from a foreign guest.

The hotel was lovely, I said, though I was puzzled that the sheets on my bed didn’t cover the mattress. They tended to ride up as I slept, leaving me on the bare mattress. It was true, too, that the toilet seat was loose, dangerously so, some other things, the pool…. It seemed…unusual…that the hotel had such a fine outdoor pool but forbade the guests to use it. Perhaps I had misunderstood? In any case, my room was comfortable, and the hotel was very clean(ish)… Of course, the WiFi didn’t work. Often. And it wasn’t coffee, but tea. I had waited and waited and decided finally that India had run out of tea.

He appreciated my good joke. Chuckle. No, India had tea.

The pool, he said. Baramati Club was a club, not exactly a hotel, and the Foundation made the rules… It was beyond his reach. Sheets. Yes. He had been manager for just a year and a half, and the previous manager had bought sheets badly.

Short-sheetedThe sheets were short. But why?

He bought sheets that were too short? Didn’t he complain when he opened the package?

It is a problem, Mr. Shetty said.

Note: Explore sheet issue. The Baramati Club is the fourth or fifth hotel this trip with cut-off sheets. Am I selecting hotels badly? Do the managers get a kick-back for saving cotton? Does no one notice? Might it just be a talented, silver-tongued, award-winning sheet salesman, a former news anchor?

And the WiFi. Google tries to climb from its dark cupboard, the blue access bar flickers and then goes out in a gust of bad breath from Indian technicians.

But we were straying from the SIM card.

I shook my head clear and invoked the wisdom of my guide Indu, in Pune: “In India, there is always an alternative…”

The hotel would pay for the phone, Mr. Shetty said. He understood my frustration. They would give it to a worker.

A mobile would be useful for me, I said, calm now, manager to manager, as it was for other tourists. Communication. Particularly, I repeated, as he had made no note the first time, as the hotel’s WiFi seemed to be broken much of the time, making communication difficult.

“I will work on it,” he said.

Mr. Shetty, Baramati Club managerMr. Shetty working on it

That evening, a technician banged on my door and linked my computer to the hotel’s landline system. It worked wonderfully (until that system, too, blinked off.) (“It is company, sir,” the front desk said. “Repair 20 minutes only.”) Twelve hours later, it was still down.

Perspective, perspective. Indian Army helicopters, now 50 and 60 years old, crash regularly because of maintenance deficiencies. I was traveling in a different culture. Was I expecting too much, that sheets cover the mattress, that the toilet seat in a luxury hotel didn’t pitch you off onto the murky floor? That I could make Guru speak?

 

Day four. The manager had made arrangements. Phone calls had been made. A great effort on my behalf. We would go now, sir, Vikhram said, please to Idea shop for SIM card. Passport necessary, to combat terrorism.

The Idea shop was 10 minutes north in Vikhram’s little Honda and the procedure was quick. In an hour, without displaying any proof of residence (Mr. Shetty was a wizard!), I had five pages of documents to sign, filled out painstakingly by Vikhram and the shop manager. “Father good name?”

What?

“Father? Good name!?”

The manager was skeptical of my passport. It had no street address. Was it a real passport? I had a Michigan driver’s license with my street address. He examined it carefully, both sides. That would do.

Though I waggled my eyebrows at her, a young woman in the photo shop next door aimed a big Canon at me unsmilingly, and I got six skeptical-looking, washed-out shots for Rs 50. One got stapled to the documents. I paid Rs. 250 ($3.78). The manager, bored by the familiar, unceremoniously lifted a frayed box of small yellow envelopes from his drawer, each with a ten-digit all-India phone number on the outside and a SIM card within. I got to choose.

“Any number you like,” Vikhram said.

My number would be “activated” within 24 hours. 968-953-3954 (though the Indian presentation is without hyphens).

Need I do anything?

Automatic. It would activate before 24 hours. Tomorrow.

We returned to the hotel. I thanked Vikhram for his help. “It is my duty, sir,” he said.

 

Day 5   Thirty-five hours had passed. Blaze was still inert, but lightable, with the appearance of life, as a pink-cheeked corpse at viewing. I had made English my language. I had made Vikhram my first contact. I had used the calculator to tabulate how fast my bank account was draining.

I carried the inert phone into town and back early in the day, suddenly insecure without a mobile. Everyone had a mobile. I had made five previous trips to India without a phone, the first four without any device, but I was nervous, now, with a phone that didn’t work. I pulled it out periodically in town, turned it on and poked out Vikhram’s number on the tiny keys. Nothing. Not automatically activated at all. But to all appearances, I was as connected as everyone else. It comforted me.

9 p.m. The phone played a Bollywood air. It was ringing! It had been activated! “Hello? Hello?” I knew how Alexander Graham Bell had felt. It was from home. On the other side of the world. I had sent my new number in an email, and it worked. Guru was fine…

I called Vikhram. I wanted to thank him again. It didn’t buzz. I got a long message in Marathi, something about “balance.” I tried again. “Balance.”

 

Day 6. An assistant manager whose name I never learned, the same man who had hooked me to the hotel’s broken Internet, listened to my balance message. Yes, you have no balance. Must buy talk time. Any shop. No problem. Not so much money. And must call within 30 days, even short time, or not activate. Talk time!

I didn’t understand.

Mr. Shetty was clearer. He listened to my balance message and said I had no balance. I needed to buy talk time. Any shop. It wouldn’t cost much. He called a national help center in Bangalore, perhaps in the same bunker as those so helpful to Americans with various digital issues. Yes I had no balance. He tapped out numbers on my phone, which I had begun to call Slash. Yes, there it was. No balance. Just Rs 197.50 for incoming.

I had understood it was all automatic… I said this forcelessly, worn down, easy prey now for the tangerine/banana wallah (bad wallahs try to slip in yesterday’s bananas and too-soft, sun-ruined tangerines; one must be alert). The store said I had a balance of Rs 197.50…

“Talk Time! Buy Talk Time,” Mr. Shetty instructed, something in his manner hinting he was tiring of my mobile issues. However, I was grateful that my toilet seat was tighter. Not secure, exactly; it required stillness; but it was less perilous than it had been.) Also, a waiter had banged on my door with a cup of tea, the same milk tea in a dirty glass with sugar and cinnamon that is India’s coffee and doughnuts. Perhaps I should post a list of grievances on my door each morning.

Talk time, I said.

I walked across my suburban Serengeti to the nearest phone shop, a kilometer or so toward the main road.. He had said Any Shop. No, they said.

“Talk Time,”I said, “talk Time! Talktime!”

No, they said. No one there spoke English, and they were surly, as they had a right to be, working for peanuts in a stifling phone shop with litter piled in the corners.

OK. I’d return to the Idea shop. I began the trek. A motorcycle screeched to a stop beside me. It was a waiter from the Baramati Club restaurant. Ride? He knew where the Idea shop was, and in two minutes I was there. It was 10 o’clock. The shop opened, the neatly-printed legend on the door said, at 9:30. It was closed. A crowd stood outside on the trash-strewn pavement in the withering sun.

It wasn’t locked. I pushed in. The cleaning lady was whisking. She snarled at me and motioned me back outside. I sat down. Thank you, I would wait.

At 10:15, a clerk arrived, a puffy-eyed young woman in a sweater, prepared for her hours beneath the frigid AC. “Stand!” she told me. Why didn’t she leave her sweater on her chair, or bring it in a bag? Outside was an Oklahoma summer day, with masala instead of armadillo jerky. Stand. The cleaning lady needed to whisk. Fifteen minutes later, my clerk arrived, the store manager.

He was a skilled technician and spoke to his screen rather than to me. I did not need talk time, he said. He had told me that I had a balance of Rs 197.50, he reminded me, and I still had that balance. I had paid. It just hadn’t shifted yet from the inactive. It was automatic. First, the card was activated. Then, after another day, the outgoing call was activated and the balance would show. “Do nothing,” he said. “Automatic. Just 20 minute only.” He copied my new number onto his newspaper.

It was interesting. The activation worked in two stages. First, after a day, incoming calls were allowed; then, after another day, outgoing…

He had said nothing about the delay after the initial delay. Why? I wondered. Why wouldn’t he have mentioned that?

“I must do nothing? Pay no more?”

“Nothing!” he said. (Idiot!) He was patient. The interview was at an end. He had customers. Twenty minutes.

I returned to the club and went to my room, stretching my toes and keeping an eye on Slash. At 11:30, the house phone rang. Gotsurya. “You check out when?”

What?

Must go. Hotel full. Check out now.

Check-out time was noon.

I found Vikhram. He interrogated Gotsurya and returned to where I leaned, gazing at the empty pool. “He told you yesterday we had no room.”

I had practiced restraint. Making a scene leaves bad feelings. “That,” I said softly, nearly in a whisper, “is not correct.”

Vikhram returned to the front desk and leaned over Gotsurya, shaking his head affirmatively. He returned. “It is correct,” he said. “He not tell you.”

But he told you he did?

“He lie. He tell me he lie.”

He would rearrange the reservations, and he would speak to Gotsurya. The hotel had manpower problems.

At five o’clock, the yang side of my SIM card came to life, as promised.

I called Vikhram, who was standing beside me. I had been thanking him for not tossing me out on the street. His phone shrilled a jingle. We talked. “Hello?” “Hello?” Hello, hello.

Slash, et alSlash, et al

Day 7. Leaving. The Internet was not being repaired, and I had called ahead to the Hotel Jeet Paradise in Phaltan. Yes, the man there said, they had a good WiFi. Count on it.

I saw Vikhram with Mr. Shetty in the lobby. I thanked them again for their help. Should I mention that I had noticed my sheet now covered the mattress? That was good. Gotsurya was at the desk studying hospitality memos. Should I crack his head with Slash? My mobile is broken! No. Stay focused. “My phone works!” I said proudly.

They beamed.

No problem, sir. It is our duty.

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