I realized that I have a lot of people to update on regarding our progress so far after our first month in India—the blunders, achievements, mishaps, and surprises; so I figured that I would write a quasi-report on some of the highlights. Actually, I will tell the story in present tense, because it’s more fun that way: you can pretend like you’re there with us, or like it’s after a long day of work and I’m telling you how it’s going over some Kingfisher beer, but probably chai. Buckle up! It will mostly be a series of stories about things that do not work as seen on TV, batteries not included, and each sold separately, but that we’ve managed to make it this far in one piece.
We land in Mumbai on 1st Feb. (Here, the abbreviation for months, like ‘Feb’, is actually pronounced ‘Feb,’ rather than February. Sort of the way you might say ‘Fifth Ave’.) We do not have any rupees, and spend a little while fussing about this point between baggage pickup and the arrival hall. There is something that looks like a line at a counter that invites you to exchange you money there. Or maybe it is two lines: there are three people seated at the counter, and at least two of them seem involved with the people on the other side. But there’s lots of people crowding around the desk. I wait in line for something like fifteen minutes, in the meanwhile overhearing bits and pieces of conversation, something about why can’t I change money here, I want to change this many pounds, you can only change this much at most, we don’t give cash here, only a cash card in exchange for your money…
Let me stop here and explain this with the benefit of hindsight. Now, we walked away because we—or I, with this being one of the few occasions, proud to claim my Chinese descent—like to have cold hard cash rather than this faith in plastic charge cards whose interests are in the banks’ favor, not yours. But there was a national crisis on 8 Nov 2016 that was not the Trump presidency, but the Indian banknote demonetisation that outlawed the 500 and 1000 rupee notes that were then in circulation. Apparently this was to get rid of ‘black money’, or money coming from corrupt dealings, and to move towards a so-called cashless economy. Hence the cash cards in exchange for our foreign money. To get a sense of how ubiquitous these notes were, we just bought a large pail for 240 rupees. People debate whether this move did anything at all, since people just started giving bribes in the new 500 notes, it did fail on certain levels. Here’s one: people were forced to exchange their 500 and 1000 notes at the bank for new ones, if you knew someone who knew someone, you could get a lot of it done quite quickly. If you didn’t, there are many long lines for you to wait in to get this done. Now, Indian society is very relational, people know people who know people. But India is also very populous, and the end result is that there was a lot of waiting in line, and in some villages, we hear, some old people died waiting in line from the heat or some other bad mix of old people and bad government policy.
In the end, we bravely decide to exit the airport without any rupees on hand. At the arrivals hall, as you probably know from your own travels, and it is the same at any airport, that there is always a crowd waiting on the other side of the divider; mostly eager faces, some bored, perhaps from some unexpected flight delay, some hungry because it is almost lunch time. Then there are those carrying names on paper signs—more recently, on an iPad or tablet—always someone else. But today, we are getting a ride! This is certainly first for us, and it is quite a favor to not have our first task upon arriving in Mumbai to be finding our way to a neighboring city. Quickly, we find the sign with my name on it, greet the man in broken English, and make our way to the parking lot. We pass from the air conditioned halls to the outside, and the warm air greets us. A great contrast to the mild winter in Germany that we were in about twelve hours ago.
The driver leads us to his compact car; white, as is the color of taxis here. We play a little bit of tetris to fit all the luggage in the car, which is simple enough, and as the driver shuts the boot—or trunk, in USA—the boot does not stay shut. He slams it. Again. And again. The sound rings loud in the parking lot, and he and I take turns fiddling with the trunk door, the latch, and to no avail. After about fifteen minutes of futility, he decides to simply tie the trunk down, with a rag cloth that was tied around one of our black suitcases as an identifying mark. It appears to stay shut, and we pile in the car and are on our way. The trunk slams against the car as the car goes over bumps and speedbumps, and as we enter into the midday Mumbai traffic, we notice many people, mostly on two-wheelers and auto-rickshaws, gesture to our driver as they pass by, saying, Hey, your trunk is ajar, in case you didn’t know. In response, he makes a knot-tying motion with his hand, trying to communicate that ‘We know! I tied it down, it’s ok.’
At first, the car ride is very quiet. It is my first time in India, and for G her second; I am at the same time excited to see what this country has in store for us, while just plain tired from the travel. One of the first things you notice, when you arrive at any major Indian city, is the sheer volume of people everywhere, of vehicles that are not cars on the road, and they say basic statistics is useless.
Not long into the four-hour journey, G and I fall asleep. I drift off some time while we are fighting through the Mumbai traffic, and wake up some time while we are out of the city. Along the way we try to make conversation with the driver, whose English is limited. Here is a key lesson in communicating with non-English speakers: use mostly nouns, don’t conjugate, gesticulate. In the Indian everyday speech, English nouns come cheaply, and are even preferred sometimes. For example, words like ‘number’ and ‘thanks’ are more natural than their Hindi or Marathi counterparts. Gesticulating is very important, sometimes it is the so-called head wag, other times some gestures with the hands, as it conveys not only your meaning but your mood.
We learn that our driver is from Pune itself, and has just come from driving around some local tourists in Goa, which is farther than Mumbai. About halfway into the ride, we are forced to stop because the cars and motorcyclists passing us are pointing at the trunk, which has come wide open. It does not take too long to tie a better knot, and soon we are on the road again.
Finally, we arrive at the IISER guest house, check into the room and celebrate our small victory of having made it in once piece. For dinner, we meet up with my mentor S and his guest L, and walk off campus to a restaurant called Mainland China. Now, the campus is spacious and has a good deal of trees and green, which you could think of as a status symbol given the density of India and the dryness of this region. Indeed, the moment you step outside of campus you are immediately greeted by a throng of traffic passing by, every other vehicle honking not because there is any imminent danger or anger, but rather here one honks as a means of saying ‘I’m here!’ to identify yourself. Many large trucks have variants of ‘Honk please!’ painted onto the backs, which actually I think helps them to know if you are coming up behind them. The result of all this is a kind of a cacophony that reflects the bustling streets; rather than the deathly silent electric cars you may have seen these days, that creep up behind you even on a quiet road. Here is another thing: unless there is traffic police around, traffic rules are more like suggestions, and the road is something more like a river than a causeway. Let me explain:
There are cars, of course, on the roads, but more than cars there are what are referred to as ‘two-wheelers,’ which represents either a motorbike or a scooty. Which, funny enough, gives the two-wheelers a little more safety in numbers than if they were in say, Kuala Lumpur. On the street outside Mainland China, there are two trees growing out of one of the two lanes on the road, like a reed might grow in a river. I have come to think of roads in Pune like rivers, where the traffic is truly flowing; when you cross the street, you cross it lane by lane, as the vehicles weave their way around you, accepting you as a part of the road as you assert your existence, moving slowly but confidently. More importantly, don’t take for granted that vehicles travel only in one direction here! Every so often you will see a motorbike coming opposite to the flow of traffic, and I call this move ‘the salmon’, going upstream of the river.
Now, Mainland China, as it turns out, is what you might call a high-end Indian interpretation of what Chinese cuisine is like; according to our host S, you won’t see any Chinese people working here. As we learn later, there is a particular history to this: there was a time when Chinese people were quite commonly found in India, up until several recent wars between the two nations, and if you know anything about war, it usually ends up with the two people groups disliking each other, no matter the outcome. So here in India today there is a certain amount of anti-Chinese sentiment, which I never quite experienced first hand until a little boy called out ‘Ching chong!’ as we were walking past. In any case, at the more up-scale restaurants there are two assumptions to be aware of: that the food ordered will be shared by all, and this sharing is carried out by having the food distributed onto your plates by the servers.
Over the course of the meal, S gives us a crash course on what to expect, how to behave, and so on based on his own personal experience of being here for many years as a foreigner, first in Mumbai and then in Pune. The most important task that we have to complete was to register ourselves at the Foreigners Registration Office, the FRO. (One thing you will notice quickly, is that Indians love to use acronyms, which ends up being either an alphabet soup or code language, depending on how you look at it.) We must register within 14 days of arrival, and failing that a fine will be levied. Don’t expect to be able to make the 14 days, we are told. In Germany there was a similar procedure that one was required to perform, but as we will find out, it will be nowhere as easy to do.
And that was our first day in India. I’ll tell the rest of the story more quickly now, because this has gotten long enough already, and also because we tend to experience new things in a way that time seems to dilate in the beginning, and then pass more quickly as we get used to the new normal.
Throughout the first days and weeks, we learn many things about Indian culture, even for G who has spent a semester in Madurai seven years ago, because the cultures are as different as they are similar. For example, it is acceptable for women here to wear jeans, and unusual to greet people with ‘namaste’, rather than ‘hello.’ We spend a good deal of our time fighting with various bureaucracies, including registering at the FRO, getting SIM cards and phones on GSM networks (Verizon and Sprint are terrible because of this), opening a State Bank of India account, stocking up on passport photos (these are required so often that the two foreign researchers here carry these on their persons at all times, I kid you not), obtain a PAN number (a tax ID, the equivalent of a social security number), and worst of all, finding an flat to stay in.
Quite early on, S, the one foreign math faculty introduces us to I, the only other foreigner, a physics postdoc from Sicily. We are fortunate enough to have visited Rome for the first time to understand what I means when he tells us that India is like big Italy, or Italy is like little India: the traffic is equally crazy, meals are taken just as seriously (i.e., long and relaxed), and instead of many coffee breaks one has many tea breaks. In case you didn’t know, chai means tea in Hindi. At the same time, I is the most gung-ho adventurous transplant that we have ever encountered. He tells us that on one of his first few nights here he had a hankering for some, ahem, feel-good substance, let’s call it, and went out looking for people who look like they might have some to sell. Long story short, he gets it, and also makes a lot of friends. On his tenth day he buys a scooter (also called a scooty) and learns to get around town, figures out that Koregaon Park is the place where foreigners gravitate to in Pune, which, incidentally is near to a somewhat infamous ashram. Because of our friendship, we’ve gotten to go to once ourselves too, and also have made good friends with a group of physicists, whom we spend time with almost every day. It’s like we’re living in the Big Bang Theory!
In the end, we manage to find an apartment and move out by March 1st, which is a pretty solid accomplishment if you ask me (though we might have stood to benefit from moving a little later because some of the bureaucracy is still being sorted out). We take baths with buckets, know how to use the so-called Indian toilets, learn to insulate ourselves against mosquitoes and cockroaches, and so on.
Other notable things on our list of accomplishments are: graduating from bottled water to filtered water to street food (panni poori and sugar cane juice), riding an auto-rickshaw by meter on our own, taking a public bus (not on our own), riding as three people on a two-wheeler (against traffic even for a short stretch!), and not getting ill despite a few occasions of mild discomfort. But probably our favorite thing thus far has been the sheer number of people we have gotten to know, and who have helped us in time of need. For our entire four months in Germany we have made a total of zero German friends. People here are more open and friendly and helpful, maybe in part because the adversity that we have faced in settling in is so familiar to locals that they both empathize and sympathize.
That’s all for now! Pictures from G real soon!
*HT to J for the quote in the title 🙂