Mumbai Express V: Letters from a Semester in India

Dear Family,

Excitement for the past few weeks has consisted largely of the innumerable pleasures and surprises inherent to life in Mumbai rather than any singular adventures that inspire me to write. Classes are going well by Indian standards. Somehow twelve hours a week in class, half of which is taught by professions who present material haphazardly at best is considered progress towards getting an MBA. Sometimes my classmates and I are bored out of our minds and other times we are trying to complete 3 projects in a day. As long as we work out in the gym and get our daily allotment of ice cream, I am not complaining.

When I lived in Ecuador, the volunteers used to feel that common sense was pretty much an oxymoron since no one ever had any. Well, it appears that there is little common sense in India either. I frequently wish that I could impose order on India society. Even if I suffer from a cultural relativism of sorts, not having to struggle to survive everyday of my life, rampant individualism in Indian daily life makes the US seem like downright placid. Here, crossing the street is like playing frogger, but you only get one life to do it right. In the US, even if you are jaywalking, cars are going to give way for pedestrians. That doesn’t happen in India, not even when you have the right of way, ever.

Then there are the habits of waiters in the respectable restaurants we four MBA hostel students frequent that serve good food for better prices. Labor is so cheap at 40 cents a day at most that there is no reason for owners to skimp on service. There is always a surplus of busboys and waiters. If it looks like you have less than an inch of soda in your bottle, it is quickly whisked off before you can grab that last sip to wash it all down. Heaven forbid that one of the other busboys get that bottle and prove he is doing his job better. I end up just ordering another soda for 20 cents so I can’t say I’m that much worse for wear but still you can never let your guard down. In the US, the customer is almost always right. In India on the other hand, the customer is always a sucker. Taxi drivers and barbers get what they can for today without regard for pissing you off so that you never patronize them again.

Thanks to the constant assault on your senses, Mumbai is a really tiring place to live. Traffic jams are horrendous meaning that going anywhere other than school located a mile away from the hostel is a real production. Taking the train offers some respite from sitting still in traffic if you enjoy being treated like cattle. We have only taken the train three times and thankfully only once at rush hour. Basically, in order to board or leave the train it is necessary to get down in a three-point stance like you are going to try and sack the quarterback in football. Then you push into the crowd and use your elbows ferociously. I’ve heard that Italian and Japanese subways are murder. Well, here, so many people board the trains that they don’t even shut the doors and sparely-placed small wire circle fans suffice for air conditioning.

Looking out the door of the train, trying to catch a breeze, you see and smell the real Mumbai: acres of decrepit tenements and shacks with piles of garbage along the rails. (As a side note, I would like to report that although it took 3 weeks, we found the business district and Mumbai does have skyscrapers.) The city rarely overwhelms me except when the stench of excrement becomes too much—and then the immensity of the poverty and struggles really get to me. I could run a marathon in the States and still be cleaner than I am after a ten minute walk or 15 seconds on train. On the bright side, at least riding the train gets my adrenaline pumping. I can totally understand why life expectancy in Mumbai at 56 is a full six years shorter than India as a whole.

This past week, I went to see one of my friends from Penn’s play that she directed in Mumbai which was excellent. Between visiting the nightclub and going to a jazz bar last night, I have been able to see some of Bombay’s upper class art scene. It surely offers anything as good as what we have in the US as long as you pay western prices. For what it’s worth, although I did not try it, the jazz bar had a Philly Cheese steak on the menu. In other news, M. Night Shamylan’s donation to renovate houses in South Philly made the society news page of the India Times. Mayor Street was quoted saying Night’s generosity was wonderful etc. Of course, EPOP wasn’t mentioned since it’s so far away but I hope EPOP is getting some press in Philly.

While I don’t have a lot of good things to say about the Indian system of education but yesterday, we had a lecture on the intricacies of exporting from India that was quite fascinating. Venky, the coordinator of our program is part time and he is a merchant exporter full time. In the course of his exporting, he needs to have various documents and he always needs to be present in person to load goods into shipping containers. Thus, each Tuesday, Venky goes to the port and waits for the government shipping inspector to show up to get a certificate that says he is really exporting what he says he is exporting. Each Tuesday, he is scheduled to meet the inspector at 8am. Each Tuesday, the inspector shows up at lunchtime with a grunt that he gets off the street. The grunt is given a clipboard and told to watch the shipping container while he and Venky go to lunch. Venky has to buy lunch and laugh at the idiot inspector’s jokes or he doesn’t get the certificate he needs. Apparently, from the sound of it, Venky has been meeting this same inspector for years every Tuesday and he has no way of conducting business unless he goes along with the demands of the inspector. Since the container of the day is never actually inspected, Venky could smuggle all sorts of stuff if he wanted to although he never has. There is no doubt, however, that lots of other people do smuggle stuff. If Venky were to put up a fuss or say that he doesn’t want to waste so much time going to lunch or doesn’t pay for the lunch, the inspector would take two days to do the inspection on some pretenses and Venky would not be able to load the ship and send his goods on time.

Without more to write, I’m signing off to go find some more reasons why I should be thankful I live in Philly.

Mike

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~ by Admin on October 21, 2003.

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