Mumbai Express VI: Letters from a Semester in India

Dear Everyone,

India is treating me well after six full weeks. We’ve got a week left to go before we get a week off to travel. We’ve had classes or corporate visits for the past 15 days I think. It seems that most of the time, the day is over before it has even begun. Getting into a studying rhythm is just about impossible.

Officially, English is a national language. Communicating with our professors, however, suggests that we think in completely different languages. Last week, for instance, one professor told us that we had an hour quiz. After it was over, he told us that it was worth fifty percent of our grade. Ouch. Indian English tends to be rather flowery. Instead of saying ‘Good Afternoon,’ addressing groups they will say ‘a warm welcome to you all.’ Instead of signing letters with ‘Sincerely,’ they write things like ‘Very Truly Yours’ for closings that we would consider less than personal. Just about everyday, idioms bowl me over. The other day, a group of students told me that they were putting on a presentation to ‘felicitate’ guests at the college. What they meant was they were honoring the guests. In some way the vernacular is to British English like Ecuadorian Spanish is to proper Spanish, degenerate in the sense that people got things wrong from the beginning and it became right by virtue of habit. In America, if you don’t answer a true or false question on a test, since it’s not right, it is wrong. In India, if you leave a true or false question blank on a test, since it’s not wrong—and they use negative marking like on the SATs where right answers minus a portion of wrong answers—it’s almost right! I wish I had known that before I took the ‘quiz.’ The language also has a touch of Victorian gauche that sometimes makes me want to say, colonialism ended fifty years ago and it is time to throw off the yolk! How American of me.

Actually, what really gets to us IMBA students is the lack of organization. We could care less if classes are at all hours of the day. What we’d really like is a syllabus with some suggestions of what we should be studying—but alas, I forget, this is India. Nothing is written. Everything is oral. Nothing is concrete. Everything is a hazy fog. Ask what will be on the test and you are told, read the book (never mention the fact that it’s 1200 pages long and the test is tomorrow). On a side note, we have all but given up on our Japanese class. Although the opportunity to begin learning the language was incredible, being in class we got a peek in the horse’s mouth and it wasn’t pretty. We didn’t have a book and teaching consisted of a lecture of random Japanese words for 3 hours with no conversation or context. Now, I understand why when we explain that we are studying in Mumbai, fellow conversationalist explain that people (and by the look on their face you can tell they mean rational ones) go to study in the States. So much for rationality… In all seriousness, we’ve got a few good professors but the chaotic schedule makes it difficult to study and get as much out of class as we should. Then again, since we eat out 3 times a day, we often spend 3 or 4 hours a day in restaurants. When you throw in a trip to the gym here or there, it is no wonder there is never any time to study. Well I could give up dinner at the restaurant and order a bland mystery meal of sorts to my room, but can you blame me if I’d rather not?

Last week, we went to visit Siemens for five days. I will spare you the business gob-a-junk and share the more interesting part of the visit with you. Besides getting an overview of how a large company functions, the visit to Siemens showed some of the ways in which doing business in India is starkly different from what occurs in the United States. Each morning, we were picked up for the hour-long ride to the factory by the company bus along with the majority of Siemens’ employees. Since the factory is so massive, relatively isolated and the 2000 employees do not have independent means of transportation, breakfast and lunch are provided in the cafeteria each day on site. Furthermore, the cafeteria was segregated with engineers and managers eating in a slightly nicer seating area than that where the shop floor workers ate. While I would not be surprised if upper management at a factory in the US eats apart from most employees, I suspect the division between employees and managers at lunch would be in different cafeterias altogether so that disparities in treatment are not so obvious.

The head of Siemens’ Personnel Department, the forth most important person in Siemens’ India, explained that the company faced a constant balancing act between allowing its workers to have a decent quality of life and being competitive globally. One example of this is found in the company’s support of a cooperative that Siemens’ helped formed for ex-employees who where brought out in the late 1990s. Most of the formers works were 40 or 50 often with 25 years experience. They would have been unemployed for the rest of their lives without the cooperative. Some of the company’s electrical component manufacturing is now outsourced to this cooperative. We had the opportunity to visit the cooperative and it was incredible. About 30 guys squeezed into a little garage-sized sweatshop putting bolts on screws with fans overhead for comfort. Apparently, most places where outsourcing is done don’t even have fans so cooperative members consider themselves lucky. The cooperative has a formal accountant and last year made a $1,400 profit after paying for labor. Labor amounted to $40 OR $5O a month for each of the 90 member workers and we are talking compensation for working 10 hour days, six days a week. $1,400 may not sound like much but considering it represents almost 3’x the annual average earnings for most Indians, it is quite a substantial sum. Since dividends are taxed, i.e. the $1,400 profit can’t be distributed without giving a bunch to the government, the members of the cooperative decide on something they all want like backpacks and the cooperative buys every worker a backpack representing their portion of the profits.

Siemens finds it difficult supporting ex-workers in the cooperative who are lower paid than they used to be but at least have jobs and satisfying the requirement of the union who represent current workers, especially since the union knows that layoffs will be the result of the next investment in automated mass production technology and continued outsourcing. Nonetheless, the company has made an effort to ensure that the cooperative members have steady work for the foreseeable future.

One of the highlights of visiting Siemens in India was the opportunity to work on the shop floor for a couple of hours. We assembled electrical relay switches along side the workers, putting in screws by hand and winding wire and snapping together plastic parts. The work was not hard although I would imagine that it would quickly become monotonous. Most of the gentlemen on the assembly line had 15 or more years of experience repeatedly performing the same task. The semi-skilled shop-floor workers in the assembly line were all amazingly open and generous with their time teaching us numbskulls how to do their work. Walking past the different tables or assembly lines, I got a sense of how all those little fixtures at Home Depot and probably of how most of America is made in some greasy third world warehouse.

Undoubtedly, the highlight of my visit to Siemens was a visit to the computer classrooms at three schools that were set up by the employee union in order to allow children in extremely poor schools to learn how to use computers. The classrooms each had six or seven computers and thirty children. Teachers are paid through funds that the union raises in an effort to improve the communities in which they live. While I’m not sure how effective the computer classes ultimately are, the children were simply beautiful and delightful. Having foreigners visit the schools was a big deal. I used my 10 lines in Hindi to communicate with them and they gave us flowers. Visiting the children reminded me of Ecuador so much that even thinking about it makes me all misty eyed.

Thanks for reading. Until next time,
Mike

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~ by Admin on October 25, 2003.

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