July 13, 2010
I recently spent an afternoon with another American student in a place in New Delhi called the India Habitat Centre—easily the poshest place I've been to in India yet. The Centre is something of a blend of an office building, a conference center and an elite social club. The institutions it houses include the ILO, the MacArthur Foundation, the Centre for Science & Environment, and numerous other high-profile Indian think tanks, government agencies, and trade organizations. Its premises are undeniably opulent. The massive courtyard features several fountains, terraced gardens, and a glass ceiling at least five stories up to shield from rain. Custodial staff ceaselessly sweep and mop the pavement tiles to keep them free of the characteristic layer of Delhi dust. Rumor has it the Chief Minister of Bihar was recently denied membership for being too hoi polloi.
On returning, I remarked to a friend that the Centre looked like a slightly modified version of a ritzy American conference center. He responded, "Almost. It’s actually a cheap imitation." I was taken aback by his bluntness, but with some reflection I have come to the conclusion that he is basically right.
Why is it that the Indian elite choose to construct a conference center in an Anglo-American style in a country with an equally rich architectural tradition? Why is it necessary to keep outdoor tile footpaths—which will never be touched by bare feet—free of the dust that is found literally everywhere in Delhi? I believe the answer lies in a pervasive culture of imitationism in India. To exemplify this point further, consider the eating establishments at the Centre. My friend and I, not being members, were directed to a fairly basic food court (which included, among other restaurants, "Western Willy’s"). The members—essentially the social and intellectual elite of Delhi—however, get access to the exclusive "American diner". A friend of my friend extolled the quality of this diner’s hot dogs and hamburgers. He seemed genuinely surprised when I told him that these are pretty lowbrow dishes in the US.
I am suspicious of this trend for several reasons, not least of which is that the concomitant imported institutional arrangements do not fit perfectly in the Indian context. For instance, about a week ago I found myself in Croma, an electronics chain store run by the Tata group. For all intents and purposes, a replica of Best Buy. However, I quickly learned that this outlet was out of about one third of its stocked items. How viable is the supermarket business model in a country where most manufacturing is carried out in unregistered factories employing 10-15 people, and where a large proportion of shipping takes place on thelas and cycle-carts? Or, for another example (which has some relevance to my research here), does the car culture work in Delhi? Since the 1980's, the number of cars in Delhi has more than tripled, but the infrastructure to support them simply does not exist. For one, there is no parking space in Delhi. Cars tend to park illegally on street-sides, contributing to the already ridiculous level of congestion. The municipal authority has adopted the band-aid approach to this problem (with some exceptions, notably the excellent Delhi metro system) of building a network of flyover highways while continuing to provide subsidized loans for purchasing cars. The already taxed busing system seems to have been largely ignored.
I should clarify: I am not criticizing India for failing to live up to some Western-centric developmental telos. Rather, I am concerned that Indian society has itself internalized this teleogical point of view at the expense of forming appropriate—and no less valid—institutions for the unique context here. I should clarify further that my distress is not limited to the realm of development. The imitationist vein of Indian culture runs much deeper than that.
To explain more precisely what I mean, I think it would be best to start some more examples. If you walk around Connaught Place (the central market in Delhi), you will not see a single brown mannequin. They are uniformly white, and usually blonde. For another, a younger boy once tried to chum up to me by explaining that, "American girls. I like them. They are good girls." Yet another, on the train ride back from Agra of which I wrote previously, a young man took a lock my hair in his hand and infomed me, "Aapke baal... is beauty" (I had to laugh at that one). It is episodes like these that lead me to conclude that this imitationist social phenomenon is not merely a manifestation of admiration for Western economic and political supremacy—though it certainly is that. It extends even down to the aesthetic qualifications of races, which is not even to touch upon the cultural significance of the English language. No, this is a deep and broad cultural inferiority complex, and in that respect these are "cheap imitations".
Visiting today, it is difficult to believe that just over sixty years ago there was a broad-based movement to eject Europeans. And in this era, when the type of Indian leaders who frequent the India Habitat Centre are falling over themselves trying to attract foreign capital, I can't help but feel like what they might need more is a little pride.
July 08, 2010
Firang in the train station
This blog post is coming a bit late. I've been at my computer less than usual the last couple weeks and a bit busy too, and I guess this just fell through the cracks. I will try to write an extra post fairly soon.
I'm not sure if it's as hard to make and execute a plan in Delhi as it seems, or whether it's just me (though honestly, I suspect the latter). Recently, I decided to take a day trip out to Agra--I don't think any self-respecting tourist in India can avoid it forever. Anyway, I made this decision around midnight the day before, so I had no chance to book train tickets or anything in advance. I figured I would show up a bit early and buy my ticket there, but it turns out that it's not quite so easy.
I arrived at the train station around 8:00, and the train I wanted to catch was leaving at 8:45. By the time I finally got on a train to Agra, I had missed not only this train, but the next one as well. All in all, I spent over three hours in the station. There is virtually no English signage at the station (a bit of an oddity in Delhi), and the organization of the place is still baffling to me. For instance, lines I was standing in would suddenly dissolve, and everyone would run (literally) to another ticket window where a new line was being formed. I could see no apparent reason why this was happening, nor any forewarning when it did. At some windows, there was no line at all: people would just form a crowd, and unless you were willing to physically push people out of your way there was no chance of getting a hearing.
Eventually, I did make to Agra. My time there was relatively uneventful. I saw Agra Fort and the Taj Mahal, and both were very nice, but I don't have much of anything else to say. My trip got more interesting on the way back.
This time, I went straight for the window that I had finally bought my ticket from before, but I was informed that it was impossible to get one there now, and was redirected to another window. This experience was not atypical, so at the time I thought nothing of it. At this second window, I did manage to get a ticket, and I was pleasantly surprised by how cheap it was. Turns out there was a reason.
I had bought a ticket for the so-called "general class", which is short hand for "the coach where we sell as many tickets as possible regardless of how much seating is available". Coming as I did only a few minutes before the train left, these were the only tickets still available. Moreover, the coach was as full as it was ever going to be. For the first leg of the trip (a little over an hour), I was packed in so tightly that I literally couldn’t put both feet on the floor. Moreover, in my rush to get on the train, I hadn't had time to buy a bottle of water, so I ran out just after the train started moving. After the first stop I bought a bottle and had a little more standing room, though I was still unable to sit until the last twenty minutes of the four hour trip.
Also, I believe that this was the most out of place I have ever looked anywhere in India so far, which is definitely saying something. From what I could understand with my (very limited) Hindi, the people there were quite amused at seeing a Firang on that train. I can hardly blame them. Some soreness aside, though, it was quite a fun little trip.
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 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 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.