Monthly Archives: December 2008

Professor Rowdy

We had an interesting experience on Christmas Eve. Daniela was making Fondue and needed a bottle of wine. I did not feel like driving all the way to the Cosmos Mall, so I went to the bar across the street from Palm Meadows. I walked up to the bar – an open air roadside bar that is typical here – and asked if they had an inexpensive bottle of white wine.

The bartender suggested a 900 rupee bottle. No way was I going to spend $18 on a bottle of wine to cook with. For that matter, I’d be averse to spending that much on a bottle to drink. Then he suggested a 700 RS bottle. I demurred. Finally, he produced a 600 rupee bottle. I mulled it over and finally decided to buy it. I handed him the money and took the bottle. I expected the price to be inflated. I’d guessed that the maximum retail price (MRP), the maximum price a retailer can legally charge, that was probably 450 RS. When I got home and found it on the bottle, it was 300 RS. They had charged me twice the MRP.

Daniela and my mother were annoyed. Sivakami, who was spending Christmas Eve with us, was absolutely livid!

They are cheating you because you are a foreigner! This is not right!

We debated just leaving it be. Siva wanted to go give the bartender a lecture on honesty and hatched a plan. She would take the bottle in a bag to the bar, ask for the same kind of wine and ask the price. If it was 600 RS, she would ask them why they were charging twice the MRP. We would quietly park in front. If they wanted to charge 300, she would call me over, produce the bottle and ask why they charged me 600. Daniela also played a critical role in her plan. Her presence was needed to prevent the bartender from changing the topic of the conversation to strange nonsense about Siva.

She got out of the car a bit ahead of the bar and walked down the street towards it. We pulled up in front of the bar and turned the ignition off. We watched her speak to them. Then she called us over. Daniela and I got out of the car and walked over. Siva turned to the bartender and asked:

So why did you charge my neighbor 600 rupees?

Siva began lecturing them about cheating foreigners and honesty in general, waving her finger for effect. She did this in English as she did not feel comfortable arguing in Kannada. The demography professor was a force to be reckoned with! Men here generally look down on women who even approach a bar. “After all, only prostitutes would do such a thing, right?” Yet here was a woman – in jeans no less – giving them a lecture about their lack of moral fortitude! The bartender and his two assistants looked like deer caught in the headlights of an oncoming car. They said nothing. One of the assistants took the bottle and nonchalantly started peeling the MRP sticker off. I snatched it out of his hand and snarled:

Don’t even think about it!

Shiva saw what happened and chimed in:

Hey man! If you remove the MRP I’ll call the cops!

Then she resumed lecturing. One of the bartenders regained enough of his senses and put three hundred rupees on the bar. I took the money and the bottle. Then we walked off, but not before Professor Rowdy told them that this would be the last time any of us ever bought anything there again.

The wine – a white grown here in Karnataka – was not terribly good; but it was delicious!

Siva later told us about some more background to the story that she heard from her driver. Apparently most of the Palm Meadows residents won’t actually go pick up a bottle of wine from the bar. If they want a bottle of wine in the evening and are not willing to travel far, they often send their driver to pick one up. There seems to be a system where the bar charges the driver the MRP and the driver informs his employer that it was the inflated price. The bartenders and drivers are in collusion. If a foreigner shows up, they give the inflated version of the price to keep the charade up.

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Off to Rajasthan

I am leaving for the airport with my mother. Her two weeks here are over and she is catching a plane back to New Jersey, via an overnight layover in London. I think she enjoyed herself and strangely she loved Bangalore traffic.

Our driver will return to the house and pick up the family to bring them to the airport. Two hours after my mom’s plane leaves for the UK, we are catching a flight to Jaipur. We’ll be there for a week, visiting Jaipur, Pushkar, Jodhpur and Jaisalmer. We plan to do an overnight camel safari in the Thar Desert while we are in Jaisalmer.

I scheduled a post about a Christmas Eve experience for tomorrow. Otherwise, We’ll be off playing tourist in the desert. See you in a week.

Christmas in the Land of Perpetual Summer

Merry Christmas all!

It is Christmas Morning. The kids are still asleep, but not for much longer.

There is a thick blanket of fog overhead and the morning air is cool. That will change later as the tropical sun burns off the fog and the comfortable cool of the “winter” morning and the day heats up. That is the first Christmas anomaly.

We acquired probably close to 1000 lights (hey they were cheap), lit up the Christmas tree to blinding levels and strung lights in the windows as we would in Germany or America. Our house is a lonely outpost of Santa friendly blinkiness; the only lit up house on the street. This is not surprising of course. A few were lit up for Diwalli; some spectacularly so, but it seems that most of the expats left town for the holidays; either to their home countries or to Thailand.

It seems as if most Indians left town as well. India is secular and they handle having a secular government in a land of a zillion religions by having public holidays on everyone’s holidays. Diwalli, Eid, Christmas, etc. Christmas comes at the time of year when India has the best weather, so India’s middle class uses it to go travelling it seems.

And then there is the Christmas tree! We did not ship in an artificial tree as most of the other expats do. At first, we thought that it we’d not be able to find a tree and would have to do something like string popcorn on banana leaves as a proxy. This was not needed. They have a variety of conifer here used as a Christmas tree. I don’t know what it is called. Our driver just calls the species “Christmas Tree”, just as there is a “Jungle Tree”. We bought one. The tree is a poor, scraggly thing; “Charlie Brown tree” is the term my mother uses. Conifers here just don’t develop like the firs of northern climates. It is kind of neat and very exotic. I have to confess that though last year’s tree was a very proper and beautiful fir, this one eats it out in terms of sheer coolness.

My mom helped the kids create garlands out of toffee and strings and we hung sweets on it instead of normal ornaments. The poor tree looks as if it will topple over, or buckle under from the load of sweets on it!

Charlotte is awake and I hear her speaking with her grandmother downstairs… time to go… Merry Christmas All!

Decorating the Tree

All Lit Up

The Dilemma Ends

The story of our domestic help’s medical bills came to an end about two week ago. It took me that long to get around to actually writing about it as it is a heavy subject and was bound to be a long post. I also have not posted anything else in that time because I felt that skipping this to post light hearted observations of the denizens of the subcontinent would be out of place until I did this.

We won’t be seeing any more of those medical bills. Our maid’s son passed away from cancer at the age of 34. He had a biopsy performed on one of the lymph nodes in his neck a few days before he passed. The result of the test indicated that he had advanced cancer and was too weak for chemotherapy. They could only try to make him comfortable. His breathing was weak and he was on oxygen. As seems to be the custom here, they gave a person on his deathbed something that he liked. In this case, it was whiskey, or some other alcohol. Though euthanasia was not the intention, the alcohol seemed to shorten his suffering and he passed from cardiac failure.

Our maid called Daniela on her cell phone. I overheard her speaking and it was clear that she was being given the news of his passing. Then my cell phone rang. It was sour driver, who had been informed by our maid’s surviving son. Wrenzo and his wife were going over to our maid’s late son’s home for the impromptu wake (they are Catholic). The funeral would already be the next day. We all piled into the car for the ride to the wake in Koramangala.

It was like walking into a different world.

Their incomes are well above the 100 ruppee per had threshold that Siva tells us two thirds of Indians live under. They would be classified as middle class; possibly lower middle class (our driver, with about 35% more income regards himself as middle class). Nevertheless, by the standards that we know in the west, they lived in hovels. That alone was shocking.

They had quickly set up a makeshift tent in the alleyway between apartment block where her son and his family lived and the building across the way; apartments that seemed to be one room manmade caves and had only a curtain for a front door. They had laid down cloth shoots on the ground to cover the bare earth of the alleyway and had strung a large cloth sheet over the alleyway. Someone had acquired (possibly rented) a pair of floodlights to light the alley. In the middle, lay our maid’s son, covered in a cloth with only his face visible. He was resting in a clear Plexiglas box that somewhat resembled a coffin, but was plugged in and had a power switch for some reason. People took turns paying their respects and laying flower wreathes on the box at his feet.

As the employers of the departed’s mother, it seems to be a tradition here for the men of the family to get drunk when a family tragedy occurs. In the case of our maid, that seems also extend to the mother of the departed. She was drunk as a skunk. She had outlived three of her four children; something no parent should ever have to do. Wrenzo has since loudly criticized her for drinking (though only with Daniela, never with me), though I can’t really blame her. We had the sense that though she would normally be the matriarch of the family, her position is actually quite weak within her family; probably due to long term depression. That explains quite a bit about why we had the feeling that our maid’s siblings were not helping. Shrunken matriarchs in search of redemption and acceptance don’t go around asking the family for help. They bring help to the family.

We were also accorded a position of honor. Firstly, we were the employers of the mother of the deceased. Secondly, we were the benefactors who paid for his – ultimately too late – treatment. Someone was always trying to make sure that we did not have to do anything tiring like standing on our own feet and everyone made sure to thank us profusely for helping with his bills.
We left with a sense that our help had been genuinely appreciated.

A New Broom

In the past couple of weeks, we have had all new security people here at Palm Meadows. It seems that all of the old security personnel were disposed of and a new batch brought in. The uniforms are different now as the contractor has changed. Daniela noticed that and asked our driver about it to see if anything had happened to provoke the change. He might have heard something through the grapevine from the other drivers or domestic help.

Of course Madam, a new broom sweeps better!

It seems that they practice periodically changing support personnel for its own sake on the theory that those newer to the job will perform better. I spoke with one of the community leaders of the neighborhood the other day and he confirmed this.

Black Humor

Daniela brought home a joke from work last night. Apparently, there is a bit of black humor making the rounds of our employer’s Bangalore office.

Q: What do you do if you need to lay people off?

A: Offer them a free weekend at the Taj.

Uncle… water?

As I sat at the computer, I heard the jangle of bangles on the stairs. I turned around and nothing was there. Was that sound coming from inside our house, or outside? The walls of the neighboring houses are only a few feet away and they reflect sound very well. Also, the house has many windows and they are usually open. I can hear the neighbor’s speaking and washing dishes as if it is the next room. I looked away for a moment and then a small voice startled me…

Uncle… water?

It was them! There are two small Kannadiga schoolgirls who have taken up the habit of stopping by our house for water during the past week. They asked for water one evening and we gave them water. They have taken up the habit of coming here every day. Daniela (“auntie”) usually gives them chocolates. I think they come here more for the chocolates than the water. They probably have the task of getting water and they go where the sweets are.

As is the ritual of the past week, I took them to the kitchen to put filtered water into the bottles that they brought, tapwater into a big plastic jug that appears to be how they hold their wash water and gave them sweets. They were delighted by a small Cadbury’s chocolate bar that Charlotte brought home from trick-or-treating on Halloween and was not interested in eating herself.

They are cute! Still… I’m not thrilled that they came into the house without ringing. Since I can’t speak Kannada and their English is limited to the words “water”, “sweets”, “chocolate”, “auntie” and “uncle”, it is a bit hard to tell them that I want them to ring at the door, not just invite themselves in.