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Aziz in India
Monday, September 06, 2004
My last day in Ahmedabad was hectic. As much as the idiosyncrasies of that city can hinder your productivity, if the wind is blowing in the right direction and the gods are smiling, you can accomplish great things. I put the finishing touches on my research paper (´Rural Household Cash Flows: the Mota Sakphar Case´), printed several copies and had them posted to the right people in the right places. I endeared myself to some nice ladies in the office by printing some photos of their children that I had taken at our office party, finished off some graphic design work that I had started, and frantically backed up all my data. Appropriately, I was the first one in that morning, and the last one out (FILO), and closed up the office with Vinay after hours. Outside, I glanced back at the office building, feeling exhausted and grateful for an incredible experience with AKI.

I had made the decision to forgo my trip to Himalchal Pradesh and its mountains and forests in favour of a visit to Kutch, my ancestral homeland. I had started thinking of India as a flat surface tilted downwards toward kutch, the turtle shaped outcrop of land on the western edge of Gujarat. As much as I wanted to see what this Himalchal Pradesh was all about, I could feel myself slipping towards kutch, and when my work in Ahmedabad was finally finished, I hopped on a train to Bhuj, Kutch.

A few years ago, Bhuj experienced a massive earthquake that was powerful enough to destroy buildings in Ahmedabad, an eight hour train ride away. Ten percent of Bhuj´s population died. I was immediately struck by the unique character of Kutchis as soon as I arrived at the station--taxi drivers politely inquired as to whether I would require a ride, and when I said no, they kindly made way so I could pass.

I snoozed in my hotel that afternoon while the rain roared outside, and a few hours later, I was sitting in the back seat of a Jeep bouncing towards a remote village 3 hours away from Bhuj.

We eventually stopped on the dirt road leading into the small village, and as the dust cleared, tiny little kids gathered around our legs. But as soon as I moved towards them, they took off running, not in a playful way, but with a genuine look of fear in their eyes.

Once again, my digital elph camera compensated for my lack of interpersonal skills, and I snapped a few photos of the kids from a distance, and then crouched down and held the camera screen low so that the littlest of the kids could see their photos. I have never seen kids so excited. They started hopping up and down, squealing in delight.

Then I switched to video mode and captured the kids jumping around and generally being kids, with some close-ups on their faces. And when I played it back to them, they went absolutely nuts. The bigger kids sprouted big, goofy grins, and the little kids were ecstatic. One young boy ran a few meters away from us and starting spinning in a circle while chanting, ´photo!, photo!, photo!´ until he was so dizzy he fell in the dirt on his bum.

Another little one simply couldn’t contain himself. When he saw the video, he started giggling, then laughing, and then he started to squeal (high pitched and drooling: eeeeeeeeEEEEEEEEEEEEE!!!!). The other kids, unable to hear the audio coming out of the camera, had to cup their hands over his mouth and subdue his flapping arms.

The jhat Muslim farmers, whom the staffers had come to meet, were the most hospitable and friendly people I met in India. Perhaps it was because the staffers introduced me as someone who had come from far away, a Shia Muslim, whose great grandparents had come from Kutch, and whose parents spoke Kutchi. The farmers told me stories and asked me questions, pointed out their fields and seemed to be quite happy with my visit. I was, by now, also quite happy to be there, and I chatted with all of them in my broken Kutchi. They posed for my camera in dramatic positions on top of big boulders in their rocky fields, with their flowing, bright blue Salwars flapping in the strong wind.

By the time we left a few hours later I was exhausted, but felt deeply contented. What an experience.

Tuesday, August 10, 2004
What's in a name?
A lot, really--especially if you are a Hindu south-Indian. In my last few minutes at the office, I had my friend Vinay Kumar, or so I thought his name was, write his contact info in my book. He wrote, “V.S. Vinay Kumar”.

“What’s with the V.S?,” I asked. Drawing a deep breath of someone preparing to tell a story that has been told many times, Vinay explained the origin of his name.

The story of V.S Vinay Kumar, as recorded on ‘voice memo’ on my Canon digital elph camera:

“Ok, so my full name is Vutukuru Venkata Seshapavana Vinay Kumar. Vutukuru is my family name. Actually, when my parents got down to deciding upon what my name should be, my mother had a wish, my father had a wish, my grandmother had a wish. My father wanted the name Venkata, my mother wanted the name Sesha because she loves lord Shesa…and my father had great regard for lord Balaji. My grandmother likes lord Hanuman so she wanted the name Pavan inside it. But my grandmother and my grandfather wanted a vedic scholar to actully do the needsome, so on the actual day when the ceremony took place, the vedic scholar came and, actually, nobody had the guts to question his wisdom. He looked at me and he wrote the name Vinay Kumar. And because everbody’s wish had to be satisfied, so then he said, ‘Okay, everybody should tell their name and he would write the whole name,’ and the whole name eventually turned out to be Vutukuru Venkata Seshapavana Vinay Kumar."

So the next time you meet a Nahasapeetapetilon, show some respect--you may be addressing someone named after the gods.
Thursday, August 05, 2004
Monsoon Miracles
Today was an excellent day.  The most runny of poos that have tormenting me for the past few days finally relented, i'm sure because I got my hands on some sweet drugs, namely Ciprofloxacin, an antibiotic.  This miracle antibiotic has, I think, saved my life at least once and maybe twice while i've been here in India.  Since I’ve already amply described my near-toilet experiences with India’s unique strains of explosive diarrhea in previous entries, and plan on writing  a book to be named “The Story of My Experiments with Diarrhea”, I’ll just say that I have gone from near-deathly to definitely alive within the past few days. 
Work has been excellent—in my long-standing battle with every computer in our office, I think its fair to say that I have soundly thumped the machines.  Score: Aziz, 1, Machines, 0.  A couple of mornings ago I arrived at the office, a little dehydrated from the squishy-runny (listen, diarrhea is a major part of the Indian experience and I’m not going to side-step it), only to find that N.’s computer on which I had completed my research paper the night before was not starting.  Not starting, as in just like a broken lawnmower, it was a purely hardware-related problem.  It’s amazing that computers can function in this environment, given the heat, dust and humidity, but they really do break down at the most inopportune moments.  But I was not to be defeated.  Summoning Herculean quantities of problem solving ability, I unplugged and powered-down the CPU, unplugged all the devices except the monitor, banged on the computer case precisely 3 times, no less and no more, threatened violence and rebooted—and it worked.  I started laughing, and I laughed long and hard at the stupid machine.  Then I deftly guided the computer into connecting to the network, and transferred all my files to 8 other computers that are now acting as my backups.  And unless the dumb machines learn to collude in destroying my data, I think we can assume that my paper will still be there tomorrow.
I finished the new AKI “SCALE project” website on T.’s computer, and perhaps the word had spread over the network that a new, bad boy was in town, because I got no trouble with T.’s machine.
I had a meeting with the CEO where I was, as they say, ‘on’, and was able to show the true power of my 30 pages of pure statistical goodness; everything from the average villager’s income-elasticity of demand for electricity to the percentage of village households which produce a dairy product using a buffalo.  And the CEO, whom I saw tear apart two esteemed researchers over the past week during their presentations, nodded and agreed at my every word, and suggested he might use my paper as quantitative evidence when he presents his next proposal for funding from the European Commission.
I left the office at 10:30 pm, and while standing in the pouring rain outside the office waiting for an autorickshaw, an ambulance pulled up with its lights flashing.  I figured that the driver must be feeling sorry for me, being a poor foreigner, and was asking me where I wanted to go.  So when he asked me something, I said, “Ha, Releep Rode” (yes, Relief road) hoping that he was going that way.  He rolled the window back up with a puzzled expression.  I figured he wasn’t going that way, maybe.  But then someone else ran up to the window, and the driver rolled it down again, and then I realised from the instructions that were given that the driver was actually trying to get directions to the hospital.  Looking back on it, the driver choosing to ask me for directions was pretty unlucky for him—imagine you’re in a city where only one in 10,000 people is foreign, and you urgently need directions to get to the hospital, and you pull up beside someone and ask, “where is the hospital?”, and they reply, “yes, kingston please”.  Hence the puzzled expression, I guess.
My autorickshaw plowed me home through deep puddles and torrential rain, and there was, for once, no haggling over the fare.

Friday, July 23, 2004
stupid brian adams
Just a quick note today.  I spent the day in our sweltering office puzzling over my regressions which have turned out to be absolute nonsense.  I decided to leave the office to drink real coffee and work on my laptop at Barrista, the starbucks-imitation coffee chain here.  They played brian adams.  Then i got some dinner at the "copper chimney" restaurant, which is a franchise.  they also played brian adams.  Now, im in a small, local internet cafe, and bloody hell, brian adams is blaring.  What is is with the world and bryan adams?  Thinking back to my travels in various countries, I can remember hearing brian adams in all of them.  Is this what globalization is all about?  I cant think of any music that annoys me quite so much as brian adams, except maybe celine dion.  Canada needs to export more tragically hip and guess who and less brian adams and celine dion.  that is all.

Tuesday, July 20, 2004
The real subject of my research:"pastimes in rural India"
So i've neglected my blog recently, and the fact that nobody I know has mentioned this has been noted. At least a good number of people I've never met are reading, or so my site stats tell me.
There’s no way I could possibly recap the last month of non blogging, but some random anecdotes come to mind.

Shortly after my last spell of squishy diarrhea, as they call it, I received a call from Keshubhai Patel. This was our conversation:

Aziz: Hello?
KP: This is keshubhai patel. How is your diarrhea?
Aziz: Um, good.
KP: ok, call me if you have diarrhea again. Here my number…

After I hung up the phone I realised this friendly and forward fellow is a friend of a friend of my moms, and was requested by one of these characters to call me to check on my health. I can’t quite describe how weird this phone call was. Let me just say that I was in the middle of rural Gujarat, standing on my front porch, looking at some cows having some squirty diarrhea of their own just beyond our campus fencing. I love the extra random element that is introduced into an already random conversation when you have that conversation on a cell phone in an interesting place. If more people called me I would certainly hang out in crazy places hoping to be able to answer the phone and tell the person where I was, like, "Hi, you wouldn’t believe where I am. I am sitting in a tree in the lower Himalayas." Note to friends: if you call me sometime between Aug 2-10, this is, hopefully, where I might be.

Getting back to the Keshubhai patel telephone call, I found out a few minutes later that KP is also the name of the former chief minister of Gujarat, and I’m told that there is only one Keshubhai Patel. So it is possible that the ex chief minister of Gujarat had called to inquire about the specific current condition of my gastro-intestinal region. Like my friend D, I guess I have friends in high places who like to talk about low things. For anyone living in Ontario, this is like Bob Rae calling you up and asking about your diarrhea troubles. Touching, isnt it?

Sayla turned out to be more of an Ashram for me, really, as I didn’t have much work to do while I was waiting for my students to do my work for me (surveys). You know, you really can get people to do everything for you in India, even research! If we didn’t have the proper statistical package installed at the office for me to do my regressions, I would have checked if I could have hired a statistician to do it for me by hand. I bet its possible. Like they say, "Anything is possible in India!". Actually, nobody says that.

Today I saw some monkeys, which is actually pretty rare in Ahmedabad. They were scurrying across the road, and in this Indian setting, it made me realise that we’re not so different, humans and monkeys. Their posture and movements are so human, they cuddle just like moms and kids, and love to stare the hell out of everything, just like indians! I bet they were running over to the monkey banana-wallah for an afternoon snack, or maybe the monkey chai-wallah. Ok, that’s a bit ridiculous, monkeys don’t drink chai!

Speaking of chai, the best tea I have ever tasted is served by the chai stand outside our office. Its is simply amazing. A real treat.

Back to sayla: like I said, there wasn’t much to do, but I entertained myself. I played Gilli Danda with the kids who live on the campus, which, I know my mom will correct, is played as follows:

Equipment: one big stick, one very small stick.

Player one uses the big stick to knock the small stick off the ground, and then swats it in mid air toward player 2. Player two has to try to catch the stick. If he does, the "batter" is out. If he doesn’t, the batter (player 1) goes over to where the stick landed, and has three chances to knock it further, and at each chance player 2 can block or catch the small stick.
When all three bats are finished, player one estimates the distance (in large sticks) between the "home" (where he started) and where the stick ends up. If the small stick is batted into the bushes at any point, then the batter has to extract the small stick, place it above his ear, walk over the center of the pitch, and drop it by tilting his head. Sometimes, if it is wedged above his hear, he must dislodge it by hopping up and down—if my observations were correct, this is best done hopping on one foot.

The game is hilarious and ridiculous, and I part suspect that the kids made it up for kicks to impress me (just like I suspect quebecers made up poutine to slowly kill the english by heart attack). But I have heard of it before, and this game does just seem plausible in India. But again, I will have to verify the authenticity of the kids’ version when I get home by telling mom and dad, who I think must have played this game growing up in africa (although dad claims that his dad had the smallest cricket set in africa crafted for him and his friends, which would negate the need for a silly game like Gilli-Danda).

Aside from the kids, I saw some interesting wildlife. A snake made its home in the corner of my kitchen, but apparently it was only "slowly poisonous". Did this mean that it was only slightly poisonous, or very poisonous but would kill me slowly, which I guess would be worse than very poisonous? Ah, the ambiguity of Indian english. Well, the snake didn’t bite me, but did have to be talked to VERY harshly before he would leave.
Two days later we discovered the campus Cobra, a regular on the Sayla circuit, sleeping a few feet from my door. A guard was dispatched to guard the cobra by shining his flashlight on it, and making sure it did not move. The poor guard sat there for hours. I never found out who won the battle of patience between the guard and the cobra, but I reckon there is a good parable somewhere in there about the virtue of patience and quick poison, and it could be called, "the guard and the cobra."

Just before I left Sayla I saw an alligator. He was huge, and was frolicking in the now-dry river bed just down the road from the campus. I instantly remembered the advice in a book I was given called "How to hold a crocodile"—not because I had plans to hold this alligator (which I assume should be held just like a croc), but because the book said that if you want to run from a croc, run at crazy angles, constantly changing direction, because croc/gators take a long time to turn. I always run like this, so it would have been easy to outrun this alligator, but the need never arose—he disappeared into the bushes. I made a note not to be the batter should we start a game of Gilli Danda in the area (remember, the batter has to go into the bushes if the little stick goes in there).

I also discovered dung beetles, which are amazing little animals. So hard working, and built like tanks. Much respect for the dung beetle—he shows us that, in india, creatures from all walks of like, from politicians to beetles, have to deal with dung from time to time, no matter its consistency (chief ministers seem to specialize in the runny, while dung beetles deal, I think, in much more firm dung).

I am now safely back in ahmedabad, entering data and frantically trying to finish my work in time for my departure at the end of this month.

Thursday, July 15, 2004

"bring your kids to work" day at the barbershop.

The guy wearing the black shirt grabbed my hand after i took the photo and said, "i like you."

women bringing water back from the artificial lake (behind the hill) on their heads.

where's the frozen foods aisle?

"does the recipe for cabbage-daal call for cabbage? i cant remember..."

An old courthouse, very out of place in Sayla.


two friendly fellows and one of their "lurki's-lurkis" (daughter's daughter) who insisted I sit with them, have chai, and be stared at by a crowd of 25. well worth it.

indian babies and little kids are often dolled-up in garish make-up, whether boy or girl.

its been so long since ive been in the company of a friendly goat (see blog no 3 re: my goat-friend who lives on the steps of my hotel). goats are ideal companions; they dont speak very much but they are happy to sit in the shade with you, chew some grass, and stare at you with their humongous eyes--what more could you want?

sayla train station. can you spot the tracks?
Wednesday, June 23, 2004
I decided to go to Bombay this past weekend (Sat-Tue) because I needed to apply for a Swedish residence permit at the Consulate there and I also wanted to see the city.

I had the AKI secretary book me a ticket on Tuesday, but by the time the train-people (Indian National Railways, the largest employer in the world) got back to her, my ticket in both directions was a wait-listed ticket. Trains are a perfect example of the functioning chaos of India. To book a ticket, you can call, go online, or go to the station—so far, so good. The choices of train accommodation are crazy—I don’t understand them myself. From what I understand, you can go first class AC sleeper, second class AC sleeper, second class two tier, second class three tier, second class upright seat, and general. I don’t think there is a third class, but I like to think of India as one big third class ride—its more smelly and uncomfortable than other countries, but definitely an adventure.

If you get your ticket, you are not necessarily booked onto the train in any particular space. You have the right to be on the train (you paid for the ticket), but the train can very well not have any space for you. Your ticket can assign you to a specific berth (if you book early enough, for Bombay: more than one week ahead), it can be a RAC ticket (reservation against cancellation—if someone cancels their ticket you get their seat), or your ticket can be WL (wait listed). Since I booked so late, I had a WL ticket.

One guy in the office knows everything about trains and he advised me as follows:

You have a wait listed ticket. If your train leaves at 9pm, show up to the platform at 7:45, because the train might have arrived early. Check the notice board on the platform—your ticket may have been bumped up to RAC or CNF (confirmed berth). Assuming you are still WL, find the TC (ticket checker) and ask him if you can have a seat. He will say no. Then bribe him, but you must not offer less than 50 rupees but pay no more than 100. If he continues to say no, then maybe the train is really full. In that case you can go to the general compartment and sit there, but be careful because people will steal from you. If you don’t want to go to the general compartment, you can find a courier man, who is responsible for accompanying packages from Ahmedabad to Bombay in the mail train. You will not know how to recognize them because they don’t wear uniforms, but if you think you see one you can pay them to give up their seat or put their mail in the aisle so you can sleep wherever the mail would otherwise be. If this doesn’t work, then you can speak to someone at the information desk and maybe then can call the station ahead and see if that station master has any tickets.

I figured there were enough options there to ensure I would not be sleeping on the floor that night, and I was wrong. The train really was full, although the TCs were all the biggest assholes I have ever had to deal with. They were so useless it was funny. Funny, as in I laughed because their incompetence, utter laziness, rudeness, filthy habits, disdain for the passengers, fat-ugly-smelly-hairy-I-cant-believe-youre-the-same-species-as-me existence represented, for me, all that is wrong with India. Funny, as in it caused me discomfort. Funny, as in I laughed just like when I had the warts on my feet burned off with liquid nitrogen and it hurt like hell and all I could do was laugh.

I systematically tried all the options that had been so optimistically suggested to me earlier in the day, and none of them worked. So I walked up and down the train looking for a sympathetic TC, which is like looking for a healthy dog or slim middle-aged woman in Ahmedabad—they simply don’t exist. But in the process, I met some fellow WLs, whom I sat with for about an hour while pondering why I came to this uncivil and most unsavoury country. After realising that the slouched-over cross-legged position is not sustainable for someone of my limited flexibility for any period of time, I decided to see if I could sleep on the floor between a pair of bunks. But I was shooed away repeatedly like some sick animal or annoying tout—people said to me’jow’, ‘go from here’,etc. This wasn’t really insulting me, but I did have the urge (I’m not ashamed to recall) to yell, “You smell! Take a bloody shower and let me have your berth!" But maybe Indian national railways is not the worst thing about India. Maybe it is the great equalizer, because even with my marginal bank account that turns into a fortune here, I can’t buy myself a place on the floor of a second class sleeper train.

I did finally find a charitable couple that allowed me to sleep on their floor, and as I slowly lowered myself into the narrow space between the beds, I think one of them said “god bless”, which made me smile, although he might have been speaking Hindi and could have said something along the lines of “I’m too tired now but in the morning I will spit paan-juice on your face.” I prefer to think he said “god bless.”

The train rocked violently all night on a horizontal axis, which is the axis along which I was splayed out. This means that my body, rather than rocking acceptably from side to side, was rocking top to bottom, and made me feel like a horse was trying to mate with me. This became painful sometime in the early morning, but I was too tired and there were no other options.

I was so excited to get to Bombay that, despite the occasional bubbling fury, I had a good sense of humour, I think, about the whole thing, and was able to keep everything in perspective—having to sleep on the floor of a train is not the worst thing that could happen. There were no bugs on the floor, and it was quite cool down there too.

My first few hours in Bombay were the best—it was early in the morning and quite cool. I noticed right away that the air was clean—what a difference from polluted A’bad. The old Victorian architecture of Bombay was stunning. There were luscious gardens all over the place. I thought to myself, how un-Indian this city is—organized, clean, beautiful, calm—almost peaceful.

But as the city woke up and the streets became more crowded, and as the relentless touts slowly chipped away at that overly-favourable first impression I had, I realised that although Bombay is everything I first thought, it is still India. The poverty there is more tucked away but also more graphic than elsewhere.

My only unpleasant experience after the train was dealing with the petty administrators at the Swedish consulate. They delighted in exposing the weaknesses of my application, and I can’t remember how many times I explained that all the documents had been emailed as I was in India and the originals were in Toronto. At one point, although there was a perfectly good photocopier in the office, that old woman secretary made me find somewhere else to photocopy some documents. At the first place I went to, the machine was being fixed, and although they promised 3 minutes, I left after 10 without my photocopies. The second place I found under the big “XEROX” sign was closed. The third place had a squeaky old machine that churned out smudged and crumpled papers, so that 3 copies had to be made for every one good copy. I lost it when the assistant boy kept stapling my papers as I told him not to. “Don’t staple them them!!!” I finally yelled, I think relieving some built-up pressure, and immediately felt better but also bad because the boy was startled. I smiled at him as I left though, and that was my only precious smile that morning (aside from the frustrated laughs), so I think we’re even.

I realised in Bombay that its better to yell at someone once every day and be over with it rather than bottle up your frustration and let it ooze out of you all day. And this is easy to do in India, where emotions are never far below the surface.

Now for some random notes:

-At the movie theater, everybody stood as the national anthem was played before the movie. The indian flag was shown on the screen.
-R’s friend Y took me to the Willingdon club and I hung up where Bombay’s elite do.
-I visited the Aga Khan boys school and the Prince Aly Khan hospital
-I went to the zoo
-I saw some really nice art at the different art galleries
-I ate lots of good REAL western food
-I realised trying to save money and having the occasional reward is more satisfying than consuming everything
-I walked along marine drive next to the water at night and it was nice
-I also scolded various petty photography equipment salespeople (one when he opened up my camera and put his thumb right on the delicate shutter baldes), and found it highly satisfying.

I hope I havent created the impression that I didn’t like Bombay. I loved all of it and can’t wait to go back, hopefully sleeping anywhere but the floor next time.