Monday, December 31, 2007

India 2007

December 2007 took us to India again. We hadn't expected to return quite so soon, but one of our closest friends was getting married in Bangalore. The wedding ended up postponed, but we grabbed the opportunity for some new adventures anyway. We spent much of the time in the south-western state of Kerala, prompted in part by an invitation to visit a grad school friend of mine (Venkatesh) who uses Shriram's textbooks. Venkatesh organized a 2-day symposium on computer science education at his university, the Indian Institute of Information Technology and Management Kerala, in Trivandrum. We joined 3 other CS professors in talking about initiatives for developing post-graduate technology education. We also traveled a bit through Kerala just as tourists.

Here we come a Kerala-ing

Kerala has a nontrivial Syrian Christian population, so Christmas has a genuine presence there. My image of Indian Christmas from last year's trip was of skinny gas station attendants in skinnier red santa suits. Kerala broadens the costuming, with a rich array of santa masks available from roadside shops. The first one I saw featured a rough, round ruddy-face with stubble beard, more of an irish fisherman look (the fisherman analogy makes sense for Kerala, but the irish escaped me). Another featured a long triangular beard more than twice the length of the red hat. A third was a simple paper affair that reminded me of old Burger King crowns. I only ever saw the third being worn (by small kids at a park), but suspect these get saved for parties. Our first night, we walked past a private home outside which a small group was singing loudly to energetic drumming; looked to me like caroling of a form, given the santa-costumed ringleader, three others wearing lamps on their heads, and the vague resemblance to the rhythms and tonal patterns of christmas tunes. Whenever sound stands out as noise in India, something unusual must be going on; they were having a jolly time at the least.

Lacking evergreens, Christmas decorations consist mostly of large paper stars strung up everywhere. Churches will hang dozens of them cascading down from rooftops to entry arches, each enclosing a lightbulb. The color schemes are flamboyantly indian: kaleidoscopes of pinks, oranges, purples and greens. One fancy hotel made a bouquet of small stars of silver and gold foil to suggest plant life; otherwise, trees just aren't part of the holiday iconography (despite Kerala being overrun by tropical trees). The endless arrays of stars and masks at stall after stall along the roads gave the holidays a cozy, personal feel in contrast to the mall-scale commercial assault that has become Christmas in the US. That commercial-scale feel re-emerged in Bangalore and Mumbai, where large stores and malls promoted the holiday spirit. The day we left, the local Bangalore paper reported that Christmas-period retail sales had surpassed those of Diwali for the first time. What better evidence of the rise of India's middle class than the firm rooting of a shopping season.


Our first stop in Kerala was Munnar, a tea-plantation town in the high mountains of Kerala. The plantations are spectacular: driving a couple hours from Cochin along the usual Indian dusty and cracked roads, the plantations suddenly cover the landscape in vivid green bushes. With the spaces between the bushes, the hills look like rough green stone walls cemented with black grouting. The visual textures, both within and between the dense bushes, are fantastic. The air is also fairly clean, making the Munnar plantations a lovely place to walk for an afternoon. Wandering the plantation paths, I was reminded of another December in which we visited the Swiss mountain town of Murren. There, we also walked mountain paths, stared at mountains and breathed deeply (albeit in snow). Initially, I made the connection through the similarity of letters and vowel patterns between "Murren" and "Munnar", but the place still kept saying "Switzerland" to me for some reason. Then Shriram figured it out: our hotel in Munnar had the same interior design as a small hotel we really like in Zurich (the Adler): winding staircase with murals on the landings, a small bench suggesting a garden on the ground floor landing, detail railings, similar carved ceilings, even the same yellow paint around the elevator. No fondue restaurant, but enough to cause mild disorientation everytime we used the main staircase. Anyone have another 6-letter mountain town starting with "M" to recommend?

Monsoon Showers

Much of Kerala is inhabited tropical rainforest. My first real rainforest experience had been last year in Australia, where people and the rainforest more or less keep their respective places. In true indian style, rainforest life looks confrontational: people installed housing and spice farms in hacked-out clearings and the rainforest looks ready to swallow the result: palms tower over small concrete structures, bending over the clearings with anticipation of a sci-fi movie monster who has just spotted lunch. Rain is a key economic player here, typified by the annual monsoon which make the region so fertile (I heartily recommend Frater's "Chasing the Monsoon" for an overview). Everyone and everything is just used to getting very, very wet at times.

Which I presume explains some of the showering facilities we encountered at our hotels. An upper-average arrangement features an overhead showerhead in a corner of the bathroom near a floor drain: no curtain or separator between the bathing floor area and the rest of the bathroom floor. One quickly learns how shower curtains free us from thinking about water dispersal. One homestay (aka bed-and-breakfast) had a more challenging arrangement: a showerhead mounted on the wall directly between the toilet and the bathroom door and no floor drain (just a small drain hole at the side wall base behind the toilet). Using the showerhead coated the entire bathroom with water, with no obvious way (such as a squeegie) to clear it up for subsequent toilet use. One day, I tried just bathing over the small sink to contain the mess, only to find Shriram happy to reproduce the rain effect when I was done. I have to wonder whether living with the monsoon changes one's attitude towards standing water everywhere; perhaps such bathrooms are a form of daily monsoon-prayer ritual. Being used to fully enclosed shower spaces in the west, I used to think that the 3/4 stalls common in European hotels posed water-containment challenges. When we finally got to a hotel with such a shower arrangement, I rejoiced in the reduced-stress bathing experience.

Plane dosa

This trip featured four flights on domestic airlines. On the advice of friends, we tried both Jet Airways and Kingfisher; I now understand the disdain that travelers on good Asian airlines have for US airline services. Bottled drinks served to all before takeoff, menu cards and towelettes distributed before takeoff, the daily newspaper tucked into each seatpocket, and a personal entertainment system (on demand music and movies), even on short flights. And then there's the food: good south indian sambar, idly, uppma, and fresh fruit as a standard meal option (rather than a hard-to-get special meal). No bread-and-slice-of-cheese/meat-snack-if-lucky experience here. One early evening flight was delayed almost two hours, and when we asked where we might find dinner (having planned to eat on the plane), we were directed to the airport restaurant where buffet would be served free of charge to passengers on our delayed flight (and we still got the planned dinner on the delayed flight). And this was regular economy class. To be fair, Continental fed us very well on both of our Mumbai-Newark flights (we were in business class after all--thank you frequent-flier miles!), with a mix of Indian and American options (entrees all Indian for the vegetarians, of course). Even in business class though, bits of the american food came tired and prepackaged: the huge ken's salad dressing, the dead and skinny bagel (which we ate assuming that to be our full breakfast, rather than the pre-omelette round). The multicuisine statements from air travel couldn't have been clearer: americans take less pride in food. I still haven't figured out how Contintental's indian food flying out of India was poorer quality than what we got flying out of the states (which was pretty good) though. And both ways, it was the heavier north indian cuisine, rather than the light south indian fare we got on the domestic flights. Pride in food is something to take away from India. Taking the food would have been even better, but one can't get much sambar through security in 3oz bottles.

Life Cochin'

Traveling for me is less about seeing other places and more about seeing myself: places become vivid when they resonate with or challenge my self-definition. I can take or leave travel in places that let me remain detached. I reacted strongly to India last year because the onslaught of sounds, smells, pollution and general sea of humanity demanded a response. I felt more alive in India last year than I had in a long time, and I was eager to feel that again. A burnt-out shell of a post-sabbatical, post-semester professor boarded the flight to Mumbai, and I realized somewhere over Europe that I needed to figure out who I was again. Recalling the food, the clothes, and the rhythms of Bangalore helped remind me who I felt I had been a year earlier. I began to relax. The proverb on the Times of India masthead that greeted me in Mumbai read "Tension is what you think you should be. Relaxation is what you are". A cold-water centering from the newspaper gods boded well.

A couple of days later, I had started to reassemble myself and was thinking of buying some Indian clothes to externalize my rediscovered self-image. We were in Cochin, staying in the Fort area where the historical buildings were. We headed for a Kathakali dance performance at which it hit me: the room was full of western tourists, most wearing Indian clothes. In that instant, I lost myself again. The very idea of indian clothes suddenly felt like a branding: a tourist who comes to vacation cheaply, experiment with local culture, stay in a gentrified area and sip small doses of local arts before ordering bottled water. In a place that asked me to assert my western-tourist role, I couldn't be comfortable trying to be myself; instead, I started a two-day internal apology for being a foreigner. I saw myself as nothing more than an impact on the local economy: positive in bringing in trade and money, negative in the resource impact tourism is having on Fort Cochin's infrastructure. The idea of buying anything there became replusive: I'd be taken for a price ride because that's what westerner tourists were for, after all. In a place where many westerners would feel more comfortable (since the hotels and restaurants anticipated western needs), I was suffocating.

The choking was self-imposed (the pollution wasn't bad there, for a change) and I knew it. It shouldn't matter how others saw what felt like my own self-expression. The other westerners there could have also been expressing feelings of being at home in India. We could have been a swath of soul-mates who happened to land up there at the same time. The onslaught of auto-rickshaw drivers always offering rides and shop owners calling out invitations to look was too much for me though; I simply didn't know how to behave as a foreigner-trying-to-ignore-that-I'm-a-tourist. In hindsight, it was a bit like Julie Andrews in "Victor/Victoria" (a woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman). It left me with deep unresolved questions about what makes one a foreigner: is it about how comfortable we are in a place, whether we speak the language, follow the customs, appreciate the nuances, or share ancestry? And what's wrong with being a foreigner anyway? Why this need for a "non-foreigner" merit badge? Won't any traveler be a foreigner in many places? I've never been troubled being (or feeling like) a foreigner when traveling in Europe; it didn't bother me in Japan. I still don't know why it bothered me so deeply in India. I know it has nothing to do with being married to an Indian. This one is all about me, and I suspect it's fairly fundamental.

Sense Preserve Us

The weather wins in areas as wet at Kerala. Structures look worn; paint jobs need frequent refreshing. Keeping up surface appearances is a losing battle that the locals have learned not to fight. The focus on surface appearance extends beyond weather-soaked buildings though. In Cochin, we visited Mattancherry Palace, which features a room painted in murals of the epic Ramayana. The murals are faded and broken in many parts, but enough detail remains to warrant a close look. Signs throughout the museum warn against taking photographs, and this seemed somewhat enforced: a staffer demanded the camera of a woman who took a picture of her son on a staircase. We'd have liked an image of the murals though and asked about postcards or prints. Not available; commerce doesn't explain the ban. So why can't we take pictures? Because the flash would damage the artifacts. Okay, that was the other expected answer, except ... all of the windows in the room were open and flooding the murals in light. When Shriram asked about that he was told that the murals were the property of the government, not public property, so special permission (which was hard to get, of course) was required to take pictures. Such a contrast from the home, where the murals would be behind glass in very low light conditions and professional photographs available to take home.

I don't yet understand the Indian mindset regarding preservation: obviously, it isn't a priority, but what other instinct inhibits it? A degree of preservation occurs naturally at temples and shrines that require barefoot visits, which suggests stronger preservation of architecture as opposed to artifacts. Even the idea of collecting items for display seems more an ideal imported from the British, however, an observation I noted (and Shriram confirmed) as we walked through a zoo in Trivandrum. Care for old things would seem inconsistent with the endless rubble piles around the streets of India. The crumble of buildings reminds me a bit of Rome, where piles of column fragments near sidewalks isn't uncommon. Yet there is something neat about the Roman piles (not my original thought when visiting Rome, mind you), perhaps because they aren't interlaced with random trash. Perhaps our western obsession with preservation stems from attachment to things, both materially and as a vehicle for understanding culture, whereas cultures richer in stories and gods use other preservation media. Certainly, the Ramayana is not going to be lost as those murals fade. But India of all places has made me appreciate the descriptive limitations of words alone, even those augmented with sound. I wonder if living amongst such sensory richness all the time makes one immune to its diversity; I'd expect one at least takes it for granted. Or perhaps such sensory richness surrounds me here in the US in ways I've learned not to perceive on a daily basis.

Service Return

Books (fiction and non) prepared me not to expect too much by way of "service" in India: queues exist to be stood in, forms to be completed, and counters to divide the person with a particular job from those without it. I went understanding that I should be satisfied when something got done, unsurprised if it did not. No problem. India's increasing interaction with the western economy, however, would seem to require a new breed of service-oriented personnel, and we saw signs of that awareness last year. Young hotel and restaurant staff are clearly being trained for better responsiveness: every request met with a bright, forceful and immediate "yes, sir!". Our electronic key cards have stopped working; "yes, sir!". I can't find the switch to turn off the lights; "yes, sir!". Waiter, there's a metal shard in my dinner; "yes, sir!". Not a single one of these (real, I might add) exchanges went past our initial remark. Not even a "what should I do about it" (which seemed obvious in at least the first two cases). Best we could do was to initiate another volley with a followup request, which too gracefully bounced off the smiling surface of the staffer in question. We did gradually learn to be very direct, rather than expect staff to infer the actual question from our statement of the problem. We had not actually asked for anything, so we got more than perhaps we should have expected; we got an acknowledgment.

In the context of broken key cards, it was all rather funny. In the context of corporate competitiveness, it's cause for concern from India's perspective. For a society that loves to question authority, people seem reluctant to question for information (I've read about Indians' general tendency to make up an answer rather than admit to not knowing something). We saw similar signs among some of the students we met on the trip: reluctance to engage and ask probing questions. I suspect these traits will limit innovativeness and competitiveness in the Indian high tech sector, perhaps sooner rather than later as demand for workers exceeds supply. As a computing professor in the US, we hear a lot about outsourcing and dropping enrollments. It was interesting to see the problem in more detail from the other side, to see what challenges the Indian system is facing with regards to human infrastructure (including serious faculty shortages). I talked to several people about WPI's project curriculum and how it helps students develop some of these skills. Thanks to Venkatesh and his colleagues for the open discussions that deepened my perspective on this issue.

Indo-Japanese signage

Signs with safety warnings are popular throughout India. Bangalore intersections feature the rhythmic "a little care makes accident rare", or the more direct "save head, wear helmet" (more people _carry_ helmets than wear them on their heads). I find these amusing not only for their cadence, but because they actually give justifications rather than just instructions. So much of my experience of Indian culture is someone proclaiming what someone else should do without giving rationale, so these signs are refreshing. Perhaps my favorite sign from this trip though was one I saw all over Trivandrum: "Future spells Linux. Let's Migrate!!!". I was suddenly reminded of Japanese tshirts that bear bizarre, often off-color, phrases in English. The sign stands out as odd precisely because south Indians generally have very good English skills, better than the average Japanese. Future _spells_ linux? I couldn't quite make it make sense, which made it a prime candidate for a tshirt. In general, Japan and India don't have much in common aside from a shared love of things that beep. In particular, the contrast between Japanese and Indian temples is striking. Both have temples around random turns, but Japanese temples inspire stillness while Indian ones just seem more frenetic. In fact, public parks are the only quiet places in Indian cities, set off from the streets by stone walls that magically block out noise and fumes. They are welcome places to migrate in the late afternoon.

Wave goodbye

We finished the trip with an 8-hour layover in Mumbai enroute for home. Plans to meet one of Shriram's friends feel through (the friend flew to and from Bangalore around the same times we flew to and from Mumbai), but his friend sent his driver to take us around for the afternoon, so I got a quick tour of Mumbai. Mumbai is unrelenting: flying over it presents patches of roofs that stretch entire blocks, with little to no space for light to reach the interior homes. Population takes on a whole new meaning when viewed from Mumbai. We drove and drove, and saw the same shop fronts over and over, the same surges of people conducting business, selling fume-kissed vegetables, or scraping together a living along the sidewalks. The numbers of people are staggering, then it hits that this is just one slice through the city; there are hundreds of other slices. There are thousands of boys playing cricket, everywhere boys playing cricket, with dozens of games commanding the same fields but at different angles. It's mayhem. It's Mumbai.

Towards the end of the drive, we came across a seawall where hundreds of folks had lined up to watch the sunset. A sudden rush of people shrieking and running across the street, camera phones in hand. One of the bigger Indian movie stars was waving to crowds from his balcony. He went inside, and they all rushed back in a human ripetide that returned as fast as it had come inland. Waves are the only metaphor I can conjure for Mumbai, massive flows of seas of people,many of whom get pulled under the current. Last year, I felt that India had finally given me a context to undertake a liberal arts education; a living laboratory where economics, urban studies, and sociology would have made more sense than they did coming from suburban New York. Mumbai brought that again to the fore. This country still has a lot to teach me, a lot to get inside my head and through my soul. It's fabulously alive, yet mentally exhausting. The books and thoughts we brought back will simply have to tide me over to our next visit.