Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Just a staffer

Or, running commentary on "They are not foreigners, just staff" from today's edition of The Hindu.

"A German candidate essentially forwards a prolonged CV running into five or six pages whereas a Frenchman prefers a short, handwritten one. Russians indulge in detailed biographies and the Chinese present numerous recommendation letters to back them up. An Austrian candidate invariably lands up in highly formal attire, irrespective of the weather, while Americans are casualness personified. Australians display right attitude traits like honesty and straightforwardness at an interview and the Finns prefer to showcase their teamwork skills rather than their technical abilities. A Canadian aspirant waxes eloquent on his accomplishments while the British focus on competencies and competitiveness.

"To top it all, a Swede will definitely turn up with a trade union representative in tow.

"Contrary to what it may appear, this is not a satire on the individual job search idiosyncracies of different nationalities. It merely presents a window for recruiting foreign applicants in keeping with global trends. Yes, looking across the country's borders for fresh talent is no flash-in-the-pan."

The reporter neglects to mention that they must look beyond the borders because Indian applicants present lengthy CVs from headhunters' templates, then call every person they've ever met asking for internal company contacts, which they next proceed to hound for weeks until the HR department tells the applicant that the company will call the police if the person doesn't stop bugging its employees.

"At the time of hiring, it is necessary to understand the cultural background of the applicant apart from a comprehensive review of his qualifications. They should be made aware of issues pertaining to management of employees, peers, suppliers and others from local cultural issues. This calls for cultural sensitivity training to sensitise them to the nuances of customs, ethnicity and language."

Things I wish I'd been told before I started working in India: 1) It's not necessary to speak Hindi (or Kannada, Tamil, Bengali, or Marathi), but it's quite advantageous. People don't talk about you all the time in the mother tongue, but you'd be surprised at what they'll say when they think you're not listening. It's sort of like being a superhero. 2) It doesn't matter how hard you work -- if you're not sitting at your desk, it doesn't count to your manager. 3) Everyone wants to know who you are, how much you make, why you're here, and why you left the land of the free. If you don't want to narrate your entire life story, you'll probably be considered pricey and aloof.

"Employing foreigners calls for a higher payout rate. The employers have to offer cost of relocation, higher salaries, special perks and leaves at par with the country of their origin."

Really? Why didn't anyone tell me?

"A multicultural workforce can stir a hornet's nest too. The domestic employees may view 'the outsiders' as a threat or be peeved. Cultural differences may set the stage for tussles and misunderstandings."

In one of my favorite Indlish aphorisms, cultural differences and misunderstandings are there. But if there's one thing I've learned from my time in Dilli, it's beneficial for everyone if you come into the office with humility and an open mind. Don't be afraid to explain misconceptions, but be sure to hear what other people are saying -- there's a tremendous opportunity to learn about and improve yourself if you spend time with people who differ from you, so long as you don't imagine that you are superior by dint of the geographic serendipity of your birth.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Making men of gods and gods of men

The advertising industry thrives on provocation -- exploiting the exotic, titillating the senses, etc. Often, this manifests in pictures of scantily clad women or beefy men, selling themselves as part of the product.

But sometimes, the ad execs go a bit further. This week, stories have broken about two high-profile campaigns that have prompted riotous uproar (on the Internet and on the streets).

The first is Saatchi & Saatchi's abortive attempt to highlight the longevity of Doc Marten's shoes by depicting fallen rockers donning the treads. Kurt Cobain perches atop a cloud in the stompers, a hangdog expression, above the company's logo and the word "forever." Doc Marten's has since fired the ad agency and pulled the series.

The second is the Times of India's shill for its SMS dating service, which features the god Krishna as a dating guru, using his mobile phone to attract devoted gopis by the dozen. The Hindu Janjagruti Samiti has staged protests in Mumbai, claiming "'dating' is a social vice. Those advocating this concept are launching an attack on our culture. Persons responsible for this issue, detrimental from the social and religious viewpoint, should be severely punished."

Perhaps I'm just a rabble rouser, because I think both ads are fairly intriguing. If we acknowledge that advertising is 1) about selling product and 2) sales do not depend upon quality and product features, but also are a consequence of novelty, buzz, etc., then these are both fairly ingenious ploys to evoke a response. Some people will find the shoe ads tasteless and give up buying the boots; but in fact, many of the people who still wear the grunge-era staple may find the campaign caters to their self-image as rebels, brigands, outliers on the social spectrum not obligated to conform with social and cultural mores.

Furthermore, within India, phone applications are becoming so ubiquitous that companies must at all costs find a way to stand out -- lord knows I immediately delete the viral Hutch ads SMSed to me, promising hot blondes and sexy babes if I just log on. TOI is tapping into an overpenetrated audience, and sometimes they must pull outrageous stunts so their service makes it into the news -- it's all the better for them if a group of morons sets up a microphone in Dadar and starts screaming about Hindu morality. They can then run a story about the youth's reactions, affirmations of a new identity, a hip counterculture, that doesn't need to conform with their parents' views of the world. Some people will see the service (and TOI) as an objectionable intrustion, but others will find a social space they may not know have existed -- and they'll be able to (bingo!) become a part of it by exchanging money for street cred.

I suppose my conclusion is that content isn't just about content; it's about the reactions it incites and the way in which people base identity upon a perception of being with or against the larger social system. I'm not "for" or "against" either of these ads, and for me, to attach value statements to either is beside the point; what is most fascinating is the way in which advertising becomes a means of consolidating identity in opposition or in alignment with particular commercial entities. Fascinating.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Things I will miss about India, No. 1: Snakes in a stadia

There are about a million things in the subconty that completely flummox me. But there are also a million things that bedazzle me, that make me thankful to have experienced a life other than the American way.

Earlier this year, a Malaysian soccer team played the Indian soccer team in a match at the biggest stadium in Asia, Yuba Bharati Krirangan. During the match, play stopped for a few minutes when a large snake was found on the field.

FIFA is now investigating the stadium's maintenance practices, but I find the stadium supervisor's response entirely fanciful: "It is not possible for us to find out from where the snake sneaked in. And the snake was not at all poisonous. So, there is nothing for us to worry about."

In the U.S., I have a sneaking suspicion that CNN would give this 24-hour coverage (Python Interrupts Game at Madison Square Garden! At 10, How to Python-Proof Your Apartment in Less Than $10! And coming up next, Lax Officials: What Can We Do About Them, and Who Will Save Our Babies?! More, after the break!). It gives me enormous satisfaction that, although things get out of hand and people burn straw effigies of Richard Gere, a snake is sometimes just a snake, not an eerie premonition of impending doom.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Grand opening!

It's official: S's show is on. The opening last night went off with nary a hitch, but that's not to say that getting to the point of having pictures on the wall was an easy task.

When we showed up on Friday, the previous artist was nowhere to be found, but his paintings and photos were still sprinkled throughout the gallery. There were a few crumpled price lists, some cellophane, and a few gallery hands, but no sign of the genius who was offering a blown-up print of a packet of Maggi Dal Sambhar noodles for nearly 2 lakh rupees (about $5,000). S, I, and a gang of well-wishers were ready to start hanging, but the portly, balding artist didn't see fit to wrap things up until around 3 or 4 a.m., at which point some handymen began puttying imperfections in the walls.

We unwrapped all the images and made a mockup of their sequence; however, as we were doing so, we discovered several problems with the framing -- wrong-colored mounting, scratched images, and so on. After tiring myself by fashioning a ball of duct tape and other packing material (applied art!) then batting it around the hall, I crashed in the gallery's lobby on two chairs pushed together; S buzzed throughout the night, returning home only for a quick two-hour nap, before spending all of Saturday chasing down the framer, fixing captions at the printer, and calling friends to remind them to attend. The last picture hit the wall at 6:30 p.m.; guests began arriving at 7 on the dot, uncharacteristically subverting the law of Indian Standard Time that dictates "punctual" means "three hours late."

There was a fair crowd, including some of our nearest and dearest friends -- as well as some typical Page 3 people, trailing the scent of success, glamour, and ... what was that? Burnt cocaine?

The most entertaining guests of the night, though, were undoubtedly the journalists, a great swarm of men who make a habit of attending every opening -- not because they are aesthetes, but because there is invariably free (albeit second-rate) whisky in the offing. They enter, make a quick chakkar, and then mill around for the remainder of the show, proffering limp handshakes to every bonny young lass as they explain the importance of a free press.

One such gem was a freelancer, a crooked, nearly bald man with a garland of hennaed hair ringing his dome. He haunts the Habitat Centre's openings, and I've met him before no fewer than three times; nevertheless, he doesn't remember me. "Hello, miss. You are with the gallery?"

"No, sir; my husband is the artist." I scan the room for S, hoping he'll intervene, but he's posing, fist against his chin, as he leans against one of his photographs for someone with video equipment.

"Ah, the artist, yes!"

A waiter approaches with a tray of drinks, and the man exchanges the glass in his hand for a fresh tumbler. He takes three big swallows, and then turns to me.

"Yes, yes. I am always talking to your husband. I have just given him my card. He is a great man, a very great man."

I nod, my eyes glassy, and excuse myself to oversee the sale of catalogs and ensure no one vandalizes the guestbook. He carresses my hand, then follows me to the table, requesting a press release about the show. I reluctantly hand him a catalog, and he sets to inscribing the register with his immortal words. After he puts the pen down, he approaches another waiter, downs another drink, and heads out into the stormy night. Curious, I scrutinize the guestbook, and find his scribbled hand.

"Perfection in all ways."

Indeed, indeed. There were many missteps, but for all the drama, it was a lovely event, refreshingly quirky and magical in its flaws.

Bookin' it

I was thrilled to read that Katha, an Indian publishing house dedicated to culture and literature as a means of empowering the poor, was launching a book club -- and better, an online book club, which I'll be able to track regardless of the hemisphere I'm in. I particularly covet their collections of short stories translated from the panopoly of India's mother tongues -- I can't read Malayalam or understand Bengali, but these books take me to people and places I would otherwise remain ignorant of.

The only problem with the book club? Although they've apparently written a press release for it (which The Hindu, the Press Trust of India, The Times of India, and Zee News have faithfully transcribed), there is no mention of the club on their Web site. I know my initial five-year membership will cost Rs 500, and I know my money will benefit slum children in Delhi and Arunachal Pradesh, but I have no idea to whom I give the money or how to transfer it to them.

The only site that even broaches the question of how to get involved (why would anyone want contact information if a story is about a service being provided or an event being held?) is TOI, which directs readers to e-mail for membership information.

If you're trying to stimulate interest in a new program, isn't it of the utmost importance to eliminate every possible entry barrier? I'll still probably find a way to sign up, but if the goal is to bring the best of translated India to the masses, shouldn't it be ... a little easier to participate? And if it's really an online book club, shouldn't priority No. 1 be creating online infrastructure?

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Polio vaccination, or delicious cod?

While I love to brag about how much I save buying my prescription meds in India ($5 for a month's supply! Which used to cost me $500 a month in the U.S.! And I'm not dead yet!), the health-care system is far from perfect. Actually, on the fucked-up-edness spectrum, it's probably closer to "Now totally taking on the eradication of cholera, which you may remember from the Apple IIE classic, The Oregon Trail."

I was reminded of this when I opened my copy of Hindustan Times and encountered a story about how a the parents of a patient at a hospital in Kerala gave the doctor their morning catch (five kilograms of fresh pearl spot fish) -- which the harried pediatrician stacked inside a freezer in the pediatric operation ward of Kottayam Medical College. (A pharmacist discovered the fish when he restocked the freezer.)

It's not just gross negligence in hospitals; it's a lack of basic hygiene facilities for a vast proportion of the country, water shortages, inappropriate drug delivery systems, insufficient oversight to address health threats encountered by manual laborers, and grinding poverty that makes it necessary to, for example, sell one's kidney to get out of debt.

As much as people are talking about medical tourism, it seems -- as with so many other things here -- that adequate care is reserved only for the elite. I'd gladly pay more for my pills if that could, in some alterna-perfect world, help India's less privileged afford essentials like protection from mosquito-borne illnesses.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Just another reason I love India

So yesterday was a rather stultifying day of red tape; I spent 10 consecutive hours at the Ministry of Home Affairs, primarily being 1) told to wait, 2) laughed at, or 3) asked why I didn't want to be a housewife. But let's put that aside for awhile. Bitterness is so passe.

The new black is belligerence, which I would like to illustrate with a short conversation shouted between a visa seeker and a visa officer.

Officer: "Why are you here again?"
Seeker, a middle-aged balding man, his rumpled purple Oxford shirt unbuttoned to reveal a delightful mass of gray chest hair: "I am needing visa! I am from Italy!"
Officer: "But you haven't followed any of the visa protocol!"
Seeker: "I have seen India! I have seen enough of India! No more!"
Officer: "One by one, you have violated the rules of the visa protocol! There is visa protocol!"
Officer: "We will put you in jail! You will be behind bars!"
Seeker: "I don't want JAIL, I want a visa! I hate your country! War!"

What surprised me most, perhaps, was that rather than being trucked off to Tihar, this individual was given what he wanted. Five hours before they addressed my concerns. I think the best thing for me to do is to stop trying to make sense of this utterly chaotic, irrational place.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Got vagina?

Then P.RM Travels has a job for you.

In the classified section of The Hindu, I happened upon a rather hilarious ad, which I will recreate below:

1. Mechanical Engineers -
5 yrs exp in rotating, static, PPM skills, planning and scheduling with SAP R3 knowledge. Cost estimation etc ...
2. MEP-Coordinators -
able to do electrical / mechanical maintenance work in building, petro- chemical industry
3. Process Technicians -
Petro- chemical exp must
4. Female
(exp not essential)
5. QA/QC-Inspectors -
precision industry experience must
To apply, to know salary & nature of job log on to our website.

Does this strike anyone else as extremely shady? They're not asking for an executive assistant or an administrator, and experience is explicitly unnecessary. So what, dear friends, could the job profile for this female be?

(And, OK, if you go to the Web site, they do request a "female operator." However, I fail to see why they couldn't put this in the ad, if they're going to list details about the other jobs -- apparently targeting men -- that are a bit more salient than specifying desired genitals.)

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Literature and performance art in Delhi

Just heard over the transom about what sounds like a cool event:

Earlier this year, the British Council Delhi had organized a Spoken
Word Series featuring performances and workshops by UK and Indian
poets such as Anjum Hasan, Jeet Thayil, Lemn Sissay and Patience
Agbabi. This culminated in an open mic evening at Sarai, where those
of us present felt the necessity for more such spaces, which give an
opportunity to poet performers to explore how performance and poetry
can be brought together, spaces where words can come alive on the
stage through ways and means ranging from music to rhythm to dance and

Introducing "Open Baithak", a space to experiment with words, enjoy
them, delight in them and do risky and innovative things with them. A
space where poet performers coming from different linguistic, literary
and oral traditions can find and learn from each other. A space where
new poets can try out their verses and voices.

The first five sessions of Open Baithak are being sponsored by the
British Council Delhi. Come to participate, or as audience to good
poetry and to daring, dazzling performances.

WHEN: 18 May 2007, 6.30-8.30 pm
WHERE: The Attic, 36 Regal Building, Connaught Place (see

To sign up, email or show up at the Open
Baithak. Email the same if you have questions!


1. You get 7-8 mins on the mike. A bell will signal when your time is up.
2. Bring new material at every Open Baithak. You can perform the same
material twice max, if you wish to try it in a different way.
3. You can bring poems or prose readings in any language.

I'm not one for reading my work, and let's be honest: I haven't written anything I'm proud of in a long, long time. But it's great to see someone's trying to cultivate a more stimulating literary scene than book launches that are more about P3Ps than prose.

There's no justice like mob justice ...

... especially when a newspaper publishes the results of a survey that you find dissatisfactory.

Tamil daily Dinakaran wrote a story summarizing the poll, which, among other things, apparently touched on who would be the political heir to Karunanidhi (who you may know as the guy in the sunglasses in the ad I just blogged about). Karunanidhi has three children, one of whom was pegged the overwhelming winner -- which so insulted the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (a political party) that brigands burned the offices of the newspaper, as well as Sun TV, ultimately killing three people. (Hindu story on the incident.)

Why? Why do these things happen with such frequency? I'm glad that (from reports I've seen) the rioting was rather isolated; then again, am I really finding a silver lining in a totally senseless act that ended up costing lives? How does one try to reconcile the image of multibillionaire technocrats with the embers dying out in the Dinakaran rubble?

So self-serious

I know I'm supposed to be saluting a great true politician, but I can't stop thinking this is a promotional for Half Baked. (Click on the image for my witty [puerile?] reimagining of the ad, which ran in several national English-language newspapers.)

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

What marriage means to me ...

... according to people interviewed in the city section of Hindustan Times:

"A lifelong free pampering session and someone to pay for that laser treatment." -- Pooja
"Unlimited sex and that too with social sanction." -- Vishal
"No more waking up at five in the morning to fill the water tank." -- Nitin
"Funding my MBA course." -- Arati
"My partner can take my pets for a walk and I can workout in the gym." -- Rahul

Ah, romance. So sweet and meaningful. How I abhor those crass people who marry for companionship, intellectual stimulation, and emotional support!

Monday, May 7, 2007

Don't let the sun go down on me

Sunrise and moonlight
IE has an interesting story -- currently, India has only one time zone, Indian Standard Time; the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Energy has just put forth a proposal to create a new zone for northeastern states in the hopes of potentially saving power consumption.

The reporter explains, "The logic behind the argument is that owing to early sunset in the North-East, lights have to be switched on in offices in the evening, leading to excess consumption of power. This can be avoided by advancing the clock by one or one-and-half hours so that offices close before sunset."

Wikipedia weighs in on the subject, and at best, the argument is debatable. But it certainly is an interesting topic -- and I thought daylight savings time was just a plot by shadow governments to undermine the focus and resolve of the American public by continually disturbing their biorhythms!

Shameless husband promotion!

It's THE exhibition of the Delhi art year! Come one, come all, to the Visual Arts Gallery at the Indian Habitat Centre; opening night is May 19 at 7 p.m., and the booze will be freely flowing.

S's exhibition offers a peek behind the scenes of India's burgeoning fashion scene. From hair stylists to models, the ramp to an aspiring designer's barsati, the hub attempts to capture the image-conscious industry off guard. Dr. Alka Pande curates the exhibition, a culmination of more than four years of work that began while S was a grunt photographer at an afternoon tabloid in Delhi.

The show runs through May 24, and the gallery will be open from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily. If you're lucky, you can hobnob with the artist himself -- or, even better, his lovely firang wife!

Saturday, May 5, 2007

Nation and identity

Despite its tremendous linguistic, cultural, and ethnic diversity, the image of India one draws from the media (particularly outside the subconty) is usually of the northern plains -- bhangraing Funjabis or colorful Rajasthanis, usually accompanied by a camel or two.

So I quite enjoyed this week's Outlook, which had two passable articles on Indian identities to which less attention is paid: Franco-Indians living in Pondicherry (and preparing to cast votes for either Sarkozy or Royal) and young people from the Seven Sisters (an increasing presence as employees in the capital's hippest shops and cafes).

On a related note, I just finished Pavan K. Varma's Being Indian. It's interesting, in that it tries to debunk some of the myths that have been created about India. Varma writes:
"The Indian reality is transparent and opaque simultaneously. What is visible is as much a part of the truth as what remains unseen. Foreigners see what is overt, and conflate it with their preconceived notions of 'the great Indian civilization.' In the process many assumptions evade critical scrutiny, and a great dmany inferences are either incorrect or only partially true. But foreigners can be forgiven their errors. Not so the Indians. Over the years the Indian leadership, and the educated Indian, have deliberately projected and embellished an image about Indians that they know to be untrue ... What is worse, they have fallen in love with this image, and can no longer accept that it is untrue.
"The image has been created by a quantum leap of logic, an ideological sleight of hand that derives an untenable ought from an undeniable is. India has been a parliamentary democracy since Independence in 1947; therefore, Indians are undeniably democratic by temperament. Several important religions were born and flourish in India; therefore, Indians are essentially spiritually in their outlooks. People of different faiths have found a home in India; therefore, Indians are basically tolerant by nature. Mahatma Gandhi defeated the British by relying on ahimsa; therefore, Indians are peaceful and non-violent in temperament. Hindu philosophy considers the real world as transient and ephemeral; therefore, Hindus are 'other-worldly' and unmaterialistic in their thinking. India has nurtured a great deal of diversity; therefore, Indians are of an eclectic and catholic disposition.

"India is much too important today, and its potential far too significant in the coming decades, to be held hostage to this simplistic myth-making."
Although there are points within Varma's narrative with which I disagree, this excerpt fairly accurately reflects the relationship I've embraced as regards explaining India. People want quick and easy answers, a 30-second soundbite about how spiritual and loving and wonderful my two years here have been. The thing is, they haven't been. Certain moments fall into these categories, but to generalize -- to try and synthesize a country of more than a billion people into neat little boxes -- is simply impossible.

Booze basics

Aspiring Indian oenophiles, take heed: Tulleehoo wants to "enhance your alcohol experience."

It sounds vaguely menacing to me -- so formal! -- but apparently this company offers training in the fine art of tasting, appraising, and appreciating foreign and domestic wine, beer, and whiskey. In addition to product info, there are also cocktail recipes, including India-specific delights such as "tar-booze" (a play on tarbooz, or watermelon).

They also seem to be trying to build a booze-centric online community, which (in my humble opinion) is far superior to the scrapping about who made out with whom and why on Orkut. But sometimes, they miss the mark.

The pub rating system for users to vote on local bars is entirely incongruous. People can typify the experience at the city's most glamorous hubs, from Tuskers to Tabula Rasa, as: 1) Five orgasms in a row; 2) One orgasm; 3) Hand jive; 4) Coitus interruptus; or 5) Like getting sodomised by all the Harlem Globetrotters.

Umm ... is that really necessary? I don't really think the categories are cute or hip, which is what the site seems to be aiming at, and I somehow think that their clientele -- the city's elite -- might be somehow beyond sophomoric college humor. Then again, what do I know? Maybe sodomy is the new black!

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Begging for a visual

In Kalagram, Chandigarh Tourism has opened what appears to be the country's first "condom bar" -- a themed watering hole/disco where pints are served in condom-shaped mugs and prophylactics festoon the walls. Free condoms will be distributed to patrons, and rather than returning loose change, customers will be given a handful of rubbers.

Aiming to spread awareness about HIV/AIDs and to destigmatize the usage of condoms, I applaud this new effort -- stories about which have been run in every major English-language newspaper in Delhi.

But conspicuously absent? Any accompanying visual. Is an image still too taboo for a morning read, or (as all these stories appear to have been ripped directly from a press release) was there simply no camera-ready art?

Wednesday, May 2, 2007


On Monday, the Bush administration announced that it had put 12 countries -- including India -- on a "priority watch list" for failing to sufficiently protect U.S. producers of music and movies from piracy.

I'm not sure whether they're targeting cheap pirated CDs and DVDs or the larger issue of intellectual property rights, but I certainly hope they're not going to lead a crusade against masala-fied adaptations of Western culture. Because really, where would we be without silver screen gems such as Fight Club: Members Only (Fight Club), Mere Yaar Ki Shaadi Hai (My Best Friend's Wedding), and Deewane Huye Paagal (There's Something About Mary)? Whither the dulcet tones of Pretty Woman (originally by Roy Orbison) or Saiyan Dil Mein Aana Re (Spice Girls, who I realize are not technically American, but potato, potahto)?

Dance dance revolution

You simply must watch this video (which has been spreading across the Internets like a global wildfire) of an Infosys account manager dancing -- nay, shaking a leg, getting down, gyrating, vibrating on a completely different plane.

And lest you think this is some kind of divine setup, let me assure you: I have witnessed even more horrendous acts than this, including an 8-year-old son of an executive assistant singing "Smack That" (unedited) while wearing leather pants and grabbing his crotch. Nightmares, my friends.

Great moments in copyediting

One of my guiding principles for journalism? The more monkeys, the better. But if you're going to slap a chimp licking an ice cream cone on the front page of your metro section, you've got to get the details down.

The Indian Express has failed us. Because check out the caption (lower right corner): "While mourning for the brother of a former Hizbul commander, this militants."

Obviously, in lieu of the full stop, the sentence should have continued, "... contemplates the politics of identity, mulls the implications of terrorism in the subcontinent, and contemplates the merits of butterscotch over chocolate chip."