June 21, 2010
Getting informed in Delhi
I don’t think there's really any way to learn how dependent you've become on information technology until you're forced to go without it. Here in Delhi, I only have sporadic access to the internet. In fact, due to fairly regular power outages, I often can't even use a computer. Moreover, when I do have access to all the resources to which I'm accustomed, they are rather less useful than might be hoped. For instance, as far as I can tell, there is no searchable record of street addresses in Delhi—at least not publicly available. That is to say, Google maps is not going to get you anywhere. From what I've gathered, there aren't even reliable phone books.
And yet, the not-so-wired information systems here are hardly nonfunctional. Actually, it's quite interesting from an outsider's perspective to see how differently information is distributed here. To continue with the same example, signs visible from the street perform a much more comprehensive role than in the U.S. Whereas there a sign exists basically to broadcast what business is in a building in some visually appealing way, in Delhi you will often also find the owner's mobile phone number, hours of operation, credentials, specialties, etc. It seems that Delhiites actually store a good deal of this information in their memories. I recently stumbled upon a podiatrist in a barely reachable back alley of a local market. Later I inquired how anyone would ever know to look there in absence of some sort of public record of the business. I was informed that locals would just ask around, and someone would know where it is.
Another case that is particularly relevant to my work here has been the relative unavailability of books. Amazon does not deliver to India, and Flipkart (something of an Indian equivalent) leaves much to be desired. Moreover, the prices of many English-language books would be prohibitively expensive for most Indian salaries. I am fortunate to live within walking distance of several of the best social science libraries in India (one is in CSDS), but none of these allow you to check books out. However, I recently learned of an interesting practice. If you manage to find a book in a library, you can take it to a copy shop inside the library and have a copy of the entire book made for around 80 rupees (less than two dollars). You can even have it bound with a cover for another 100. Given that you are reasonably comfortable flaunting copyright laws, it's really quite an effective system.
I should note, however, that not everything works so smoothly. A well-informed friend of mine recently informed me of a veritable crisis of information in higher education. All across India, it seems, there are universities in which it is possible to obtain a Ph.D. essentially without studying by giving bribes, personal favors, calling in caste privilege, or similar corrupt practices. These "doctors" will then obtain professorships that require them to publish to be tenured. Since they are non-experts pretending to be experts, they naturally write absolute tripe (I've had the unfortunate experience of reading some of this—that means you, Basudeb Sahoo). However, there are publishing houses that exist solely for the purpose of publishing this glut of works that nobody else will touch. The publishing houses then bribe university librarians into buying the books. Apparently, some libraries are stocked primarily with this sort of material. It's a fully functioning corrupt industry that exists to perpetuate the availability of bad information. It's sad to think that these books would be the entirety of the exposure some students get.
June 17, 2010
I'm Not in Kansas Anymore
This morning at the Hope Project we celebrated the death of Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan, a teacher of Sufism in Europe and America, whose dargah (shrine) resides directly next to the Hope Project. The majority of Hope staff as well as some devoted ex-patriots and local community members participated in the Chadar ceremony. This ceremony involves the covering of the graves of both Hazrat Inayat Khan and his son Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan, the founder of The Hope Project. Each year their graves are covered with a new piece of silk and prayers are said in their honor.
If I had to explain I suppose I would say basically, people of all colors and creeds came together to celebrate Pir Vilayat Khan's initial love for humanity that inspired the Hope Project. In this way, the ceremony was a more glorified version of what happens at the Hope Project every day. Hindus, Muslims, Christians, and others work together to serve the disadvantaged community members of Nizamuddin.
In regard to my project here, progress has been made. I have acquired about 20 minutes of extremely valuable video footage of interviews with a few of the self-help groups that comprise the micro-finance institute here at Hope. By that, I mean Kamayani(the student fellow from GIEU India this year) agreed to ask the women my questions in Hindi and translate for me. And more importantly the women themselves agreed to answer very personal questions about their lives on film. And then had the nerve to thank us for asking them.
The remaining $4000.00 USD of the Goldman Sachs fellowship that former Michigan student Ruoda Yuan won (and was mistakenly written off as a donation to the Hope Project last year)is also finding its way out of the nebulous that is Indian Accounting Policy Regarding Foreign Currency for Non-Governmental Organizations...
By that I mean, it has been decided by The Hope Project and the members of The Navara Group [student led international development organization I am involved in at Michigan, (also brainchild of Ruoda Yuan)], that the money will be invested here in India by the Hope Project and the returns will be split into a revolving fund used to benefit the women of the Micro-Finance Sector, and a fund that remains under Navara's control for future investment.
But what to invest in? Mutual Funds, micro-equity, individual entrepreneurs in Nizamuddin? For now your guess is as good as mine. Our work is cut out for us,and I am excited to make this happen over many hot afternoons, and many more hot cups of chai.
On another note, three weeks have completely escaped from my calendar. Although I make sure to write a brief summary of every day's activities, successes, and frustrations, each day I find myself a little less sure of the India I understood one year ago, of the India I understood one week ago, of the India I understood yesterday.
Throughout the weeks, while I have been trying to understand the increasingly complex socio-economic inequalities that permeate India, I think the only thing I have begun to understand is that I really will not ever understand.
So now what, you may ask.
If I had 10 rupees for every time I have asked myself the same question, while the familiar sound of unfamiliar Hindi jargon resonates around me.
Yeah, so now what? Ab kya?
I guess I'll have to sleep on it.
June 10, 2010
Why I should/should not try to find my way around Delhi
On Saturday, I decided it was time that I try to get out and see some of the sites around Delhi. So, guided basically by which ones I could find on my map, I settled on Red Fort and Jantar Mantar. Given that I had reserved the entire afternoon to the outing, I also decided that I should try to walk to Red Fort—a distance a little over a mile and a half, I believe. This turned out to be a poor choice.
Based on my reconstruction of the journey after returning, I believe I overshot Red Fort by another good mile or two. At this point in my life, I really should have learned not to trust my sense of direction too deeply anywhere, let alone in Delhi, where street names are often not marked, there are relatively few straight roads, and construction and closures in preparation for the Commonwealth Games are virtually ubiquitous. In any case, I eventually conceded defeat and turned back. Returning, I somehow ended up on a raised highway that had no exits near the guesthouse where I’m staying, so I had to overshoot my destination once again. Now five hours or so into my afternoon of supposed tourism, I defiantly boarded the metro toward Jantar Mantar and arrived just in time to spend the last 30 minutes before it closed there in the failing light and threatening rain.
Still, I would be hesitant to call the time I spent walking through the backroads of downtown Delhi a waste. I got a view of city life in Delhi that I suspect many visitors could easily avoid—intentionally or otherwise. For instance, I saw a hub of humble bike garages on a dirt road in the shadow of some Mughal archaeological relic. Each consisted of essentially a blanket with tools laid out on it in rows. Local bicycle riders and cycle rickshaw pullers apparently came here for replacement parts, small tune-ups, a new paint job, etc. I even saw one shop that seemingly specialized in autorickshaws. I suspect that if you know where to look, you can find most services in Delhi in small informal markets like this one.
On a more somber note, at any point on the banks of the Yamuna, I learned, you can also find small masses of homeless squatters, I assume so located for the availability of water. They are scattered wherever there is shade or sometimes apparently at random. The more fortunate have a cot and some scant possessions. Most do not seem to own much more than a blanket to sleep on. There are many children and disabled people. It was a tragic sight, and I won't pretend that it was even close to exhaustive.
While I don't want to relegate the daily deprivation of the millions-strong masses of urban poor in India to an "opportunity for growth" on my part, or worse, an "interesting experience", my unplanned excursion into the underside of Delhi certainly was both of those things. Witnessing it up close can easily make you feel shame at the privilege you enjoy so casually. My hope now is that this "opportunity for growth/interesting experience" can be used productively somehow. That is, that I don't shelve it away in the back annals of my mind where I keep most memories for use as stories at some later date. I suppose, though, that this will be up to me. On that note, I think I will sign off. Until next time.
June 09, 2010
Oh no. I just wrote a very detailed blog post clicked the wrong tab and BIKAW! its gone. So disappointing. I do not have the energy to restate the past week and a half's happenings so exquisitely yet agian, so a brief review will have to suffice.
The weather in Delhi is great. The new AC in the Guest Room at the Hope Project has been rendered useless the past few nights. Light rains have driven the temperatures down from 108 F to 85 F. This is possibly the best news I will ever write in my life, anywhere at anytime. Ha.
The first week at Hope Project went extremely well. Got to hang out in the Social Work room and help fill in account books for the 52 different Micro finance groups. The most interesting part is the differences in what each woman is able to save. Some save around 100 Rs a month (2 dollars) Some save 1000 Rs a month (20 $). Needless to say I am curious and very excited to venture out into the basti tomorrow with Zebabaji and Gulafshabaji to sit in on group meetings and have the chance to film some interviews.
I got sick on Sunday because I ate a pati that had been sitting out for a day. Fail. Big Big Fail. I have been sick since. Chris Luebbe (faculty leader from GIEU trip to India this and last year) didn't get sick though. Luebbe left last night. Sad. He is a great companion, and I am grateful to him for being the one to first expose me to India, and also for his contributions in helping me apply for the fellowship that allows me to sit here now and write this. Even if I have a cold sprouting black boogers (pollution!) and my stomach is screaming. "WHEN CAN I STOP DIGESTING THIS STUPID (but also delicious!) PATI!? " I am feeling better though. Pepto Bismol and rest to the rescue.
Will be a great day tomorrow. About to embark on my nightly stroll, which is really just an excuse to buy 20 rupee ice creams from the various ice cream wallahs perched around the basti. HUZZAH for ice cream, superb weather, digesting the Pati, an excellent first week and a half here at the Hope Project, and being back in India.
Phir Milenge! - see you later friends.
June 02, 2010
First Week in Delhi
Hello everyone. I'm afraid that this blog post is a little late--I've been in Delhi just over a week now--but I'll try to be more consistent in the future. First, the requisite background info: I'm working with an independent social research institute called the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. While here, I'm going to be helping them organize a course called "Researching the Contemporary" as well as researching labor rights in Delhi.
I arrived in Delhi airport at about 10:00 at night and took a cab to CSDS's guesthouse. Or rather, I tried to take a cab to the guesthouse. Upon arriving where I believed the guesthouse to be, it quickly became clear that it was not going to be that simple. So, the cab driver and I drove around the area for an hour in the dark before we found someone who knew where it was. I've since learned that, at least in this part of Delhi, a building is not necessarily on the street where its address is. Only nearby. In any case, I found my way there eventually and, having been awake for the better part of 36 hours then, tried to get some sleep.
Adjusting to the work culture here has been interesting. I have a problem that has certainly never been an issue for me in the US: I can't seem to get my supervisors to give me any work! Having an unplanned chai break is no problem, but doing work seems to be. Another faculty member recently told me that the best way would be to corner my supervisor over lunch and pester him, so I suppose I will try that soon.
That's something I should mention too. The people I've met here have been been consistently and incredibly helpful. Even if I don't really ask, people don't hesitate to give me a lengthy explanation, to call over a friend, to draw a map, to show me a store, etc. to assist a clueless अम्रीकान.
So, for the time being I will continue to adjust to the new setting (learn the etiquette, where things are, how not to get ripped off--something I haven't accomplished once yet, I think). Next time I check in, perhaps I will have some more to report about my internship.