India reading — Maximum City by Suketo Mehta

I take the opportunity of writing about an English book to do my first English travel-blog entry. I still can’t make up my mind how I will move on language-wise, being torn between connection with my friends all over the world and the feeling of integration I get from reflecting on my experiences in my mother tongue.

Maximum City had been recommended to me by several people who’s judgment I trust, and still my expectations have been surpassed. I can’t remember when a book last spoke to me so strongly on so many different levels of observations, experiences and feelings. I can basically use some quotations from it as a sort of diary of many of my own experiences. A non-fiction book of almost 600 pages, a report of an Indian expat to the US moving back „home“ to Bombay with his family, but to me that is only the starting point, for especially continuing to read it now that I have taken in my first week of Nairobi I can assert that it’s topics reach much farther. The book starts with some very good glimpses of what a newcomer sees in India:

India is the Country of the No. That „no“ is your test. You have to get past it. It is India’s Great Wall; it keeps out foreign invaders. Pursuing it energetically and vanquishing it is your challenge. In the guru-shishya tradition, the novice is always rebuffed multiple times when he first approaches the guru. Then the guru stops saying no but doesn’t say yes either; he suffers the presence of the student. When he starts acknowledging him, he assigns a series of menial tasks, meant to drive him away. Only if the disciple sticks it out through all these stages of rejection and ill treatment is he considered worthy of the sublime knowledge. India is not a tourist-friendly country. It will reveal itself to you only if you stay on, against all odds. The „no“ might never become a „yes“. But you will stop asking questions. (p. 19)

I like the connection between the very practical experience described here, and an old and (to me) surprisingly alive tradition of thought, seeing complete subordination as an important value in spirituality, and also in life itself. I have heard several people who teach comment on how difficult it is to work with Westerners, who never stop critically questioning what you want them to do. And I must say that despite a substantial fascination for the Indian concept, I don’t think I could (would want to, could want to) suspend my own judgement like that.

Along with that goes the hierarchical structure of society, apparently much stronger in the North, but to a Westerner already shocking enough in the South:

Every day the flat gets cleaned and scrubbed. We learn the caste system of the servants: the live-in maid won’t clean the floors; that is for the „free servant“ to do. Neither of them will do the bathrooms, which are the exclusive domain of a bhangi, who does nothing else. The driver won’t wash the car; that is the monopoly of the building watchman. The flat ends up swarming with servants. (p. 23)

Another experience I shared to a certain extent, even though luckily the rage didn’t quite get murderous with me:

We also have to learn how to stand in line. In Bombay, people are always waiting in line: to vote, to get a flat, to get a job, to get out of the country, to make a railway reservation, make a phone call, go to the toilet. And when you get to the front of the line, you are always made conscious that you are inconveniencing all the hundreds and thousands and millions of people behind you. All this takes most of our waiting time. All these irritations add up to a murderous rage in your mind, especially when you’ve come from a country where things work better, where institutions are more responsive. (p. 25)

And indeed I was very shocked by many Westerners, I feel women even more so then men, eventually developing a very harsh way of dealing with Indians, like Suketo recommends:

Every morning I get angry. It is the only way to get anything done; people here respond to anger, are afraid of it. In the absence of money or connections, anger will do. (p. 32f)

Even though I found that actually I got very far with being nice but persistent. I actually have beautiful stories of that niceness paying off in the long run, like my regular fruit and vegetable store lady putting back the fruits I had chosen and bringing me different ones, that at home turned out to be just perfect.

And then, of course, there is the way of putting an extra human layer between you and that hostile or at least cumbersome environment. The main reason for my night in the unreserved seating train (which I hope to write about soon) was that the queue for the reserved tickets was filling half the trainstation hall, and the professional „waiters“ there looked like they were prepared to spend the day. With my friends in Bombay, I got confirmed that calling the travel agency of your trust and paying a little extra is enough to have the travel agent do the waiting for you:

You can find a maid and pay her a monthly salary smaller than the cost of breakfast at the Taj. „Send your man“ I am told again and again, when I need service for my mobile phone or money picked up from the bank. „I have no man“, I respond. „I’m my own man.“ They do not understand. In business, in politics, in government, those who can afford it never go in person. They send their man. (p. 82)

Suketu also does a good job of explaining that curious attachment to small amounts of money you develop as a foreigner in poorer countries:

We haggle over minuscule amounts that have no value for us: ten rupees is only forty cents. If we lost forty cents in New York we would never notice it; here it becomes a matter of principle. This is because along with getting ripped off for ten rupees comes an assumption: You are not from here, you are not Indian, so you deserve to be ripped off, to pay more than a native. (p. 32)

To finish off the Indian observations (even though there is much much more to tell both from the book and myself), an interesting twist in perspective on the gender differences in Indian society. And the author’s explanation for the attraction of organized crime for these young man, in the absence of legitimate jobs despite good qualification. Indeed an explosive combination:

It is an exact and precise hell, the life of an unemployed young man in India. For eighteen years you have been brought up as a son; you have been given the best of what your family can afford. In the household, you eat first, then your father, then your mother, then your sister. If there is only so much money in the household, your father will do with half his cigarettes, your mother won’t buy her new sari, your sister will stay at home, but you will be sent to school. So when you reach the age of eighteen, you have your worshipful family’s expectations behind you. You dare not turn around. You know what is expected of you; you have been witness to all the petty humiliations they have suffered to get you to this place. You now need to deliver. Your sister is getting married, your mother is sick, and your father will retire next year. (p. 77f)

Now on to something that I didn’t see in India, but saw in Nairobi — slum life:

We tend to think of a slum as an excrescence, a community of people living in perpetual misery. What we forget is that out of inhospitable surroundings, they form a community, and they are as attached to its spatial geography, the social networks they have built for themselves, the village they have recreated in the midst of the city, as a Parisian might be to his quartier. (p. 59)

And I was especially touched by this emotionally honest encounter with the parallel life of beggars and street people. I have to admit that I most of the time shield myself from letting these encounters reach my feelings like that, and usually don’t give, for fear of a dam breaking I think. The „obscenity of the two currencies“ is something that it is very hard to consciously live with, and life in Kenya confronts me with it even more strongly than India.

I am walking on the road leading to the Strand bookstore when I see a little family: a mother with wild and ragged hair, walking with a baby boy, maybe a year old, fast asleep on her shoulder and leading by the hand another boy, maybe four or five, who is rubbing his eyes with the fist of his free hand. He is walking the way children walk when they have been walking a long time, his legs jerking outward, his head nodding in a circle, to beat the monotony, the tiredness. They are all barefoot. The mother says something gentle to the older boy, still clutching her hand. I walk past them, but then I have to stop. I stand and watch. They come up to a stall on the sidewalk and, as I expect her to, the mother holds out her hand. The stall owner doesn’t acknowledge them. Automatically, I find myself opening my wallet. I look for a ten-rupee note, then take out a fifty instead and walk up very fast to them, my mind raging, thrust the fifty in her hand — „Yes, take this“ — and walk on very fast without looking back, until I get to the air-conditioned bookstore, and then I stand in a corner and shut my eyes.

All day long I feel ashamed of spending money. Everything I spend that day becomes multiples of that fifty-rupee note. Within twenty minutes of my giving money to the mother I have spent six times as much on books. The pizza I order in the evening is two of those fifties. The rent I will be paying per month on my flat will be two thousand times fifty. And so on. What had my giving them fifty rupees changed? For me, it meant nothing: pocket change, less than a New York subway token. But it would probably be a whole day’s earnings for the mother (I can’t think of her as „the beggar“).

And that’s the obscenity here: Our lives have two entirely different systems of currency. (p. 39f)

And in the part of the book I am reading just now, I found many things that I could relate to my observations of and conversations about Nairobi’s lively nightlife, which was quite disturbing and thought-provoking. The first quote comes very close to an account of the nightlife’s benefits from a local friend, even though the African variant doesn’t stop at looking at the girls (Sapphire is a dance bar):

Over time, I started liking Sapphire. I liked the happiness there. Here were people who came after a hard day in a brutal city, and there was music they liked, and booze, and lights, and pretty girls dancing. The girls were enjoying themselves too, making money, being fawned over. (p. 339)

My objections to that practice are also voiced, and partly answered:

When you spend money on a girl and she comes to you, she’s coming to your money. She’s not coming to you for your conversation or your looks or your good heart,“ I point out to Minesh.

But it’s the power of my money. I can feel proud of how much money I have!“ One of his fellow customers in the industry once gave him an accounting of his relationship with his steady girl at Sapphire: I’ve spent so much on Ranjita, and I’ve slept with her so many times. So I’ve paid three thousand rupees a night. And I love her. (p. 329f)

Apart from that cynical explanation (save that curious „I love her“), I’m coming to think that attraction is always a mixture of „money, conversation, looks, heart“, or something like that, but in different circumstances different weights seem reasonable. That there are things happening beyond money even in this nightlife is illustrated by the description of „the contest“, and how it can collapse:

It is a contest; the girls try to make chutiyas of the customers [„milk them dry“] and the customers try to get the girls to sleep with them after blowing the least possible amount of money or, best of all, to fall in love with them. (p. 329)

I came across many such stories, of bar girls supporting some deadbeat for years, because they had given their hearts to him. In the end, the biggest suckers — ulloos, dhoors chutiyas — were the bar girls, and the people who made ulloos of them — lovers, parents, siblings — used the same confidence trick the dancers did: love. (p. 314)

I’m aware this post is cluttered with quotes, and still there have been many passages I also marked that I had to leave out. There is a lengthy description of organized crime and the almost equally criminal response by the police (the legal system is described as completely defunct, so the police resort to „encountering“ the suspects and shooting them) that I couldn’t put down. Suketu somehow got access to all the sides in this game — different gangs (there’s a Hindu-Muslim divide, but not only), and open conversations with the „encounter specialists“ and much more about the peculiarities of Indian culture. My only wish for improvement would be some footnotes for the many Hindi terms — the book is a little like the India described in that respect, exclusive of foreigners. Still, as should be clear by now, a strong endorsement from me!

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Datum: Mittwoch, 20. April 2011 20:41
Trackback: Trackback-URL Themengebiet: English, Weltreise 2011

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2 Kommentare

  1. 1

    sounds like a beautiful book to accompany you on your journey– its always so comforting to relate to an authors experiences.  :) :) :)

  2. 2

    Yes it is. I’m almost through the book now, couldn’t put it down :) very strong recommendation! :*