Bal Thackeray kicks the bucket

18 Nov

Bal Thackeray, the founder of the right-wing Shiv Sena party, died Saturday at his home in Mumbai:

So old Bal has kicked the bucket, eh? I’d like to say that as a person, he’ll be missed, but no matter how charming or kind he was on a one-on-one level (and there are lots of stories about this), he was a bad man who did mostly bad things. Shiv Sena is nothing but gang of ignorant goondas. Even when they were in power following their horrific role in the 1992 riots, they did nothing to help build up the city of Mumbai. They just changed the name of the place and passed rules requiring signs to be in Marathi before they’re in any other language. I believe this is the reason that Pune is one of the only cities in India to not have Hindi or English signs on its buses… I hold Bal personally responsible for making it impossible for me to ever take a bus there!

That said, I did enjoy my one interaction with Shiv Sena campaigners. Ayrel and I were walking into the lane where we lived one day when we saw a bunch of guys wearing saffron headbands handing out leaflets. It was campaign season, so I knew what they were canvassing for votes. So I was a bit surprised when they ignored us completely even though we walked just a few inches from them. I was disappointed not to get a pamphlet because thought it would be interesting to read the same stuff they gave the “common man.” At first I chalked this up to the fact that we were obviously foreigners and couldn’t vote, but once I managed to read one of their signs and realized the saffron headbands meant they were SS, I wasn’t surprised any more that they didn’t take a shine to us. Not only was talking to non-voting foreigners a waste of their time, we were “outsiders” and thus part of what they hated! I wish now I’d blown their minds by trying out some Marathi on them despite a complete lack of election-related vocabulary. ; )



18 Nov

Indian traffic is justly famous for its chaos. Since we’ve been in Pune, Ayrel and I have seen drivers taking their cars and motorcycles the wrong way on one-way streets, swerving in front of trucks and buses to move up a few feet at traffic lights, and forcing their way into oncoming lanes by inching forward steadily until everyone stops to let them make their u-turn (or whatever it was they wanted to do). So I was a little surprised when I found myself sitting in the back of a rickshaw a few months ago daydreaming about getting a two-wheeler. Then, tooling around on a rented scooter in Goa and adding up the amount of money I spend on said rickshaws every month (3,000 rupees just commuting back and forth to Marathi class!) made me think I should do more than daydream.

So I started asking around about where to buy a scooter. At first, I kept running into dead ends. A new scooter costs more than I want to spend. (We are going back to the States next summer, and tying up a few thousand dollars to get one more thing we’ll have to sell doesn’t make much sense). All the Internet ads I saw for used bikes were old, and they were already sold. My friend Pushkaraj thought he might know a guy, but it turns out he’d switched to selling cars. Shruti refused to help me at all because she doesn’t want me to drive here. ; ) It was only when I asked Shantaram, the caretaker at the language institute where I’m learning Marathi, for recommendations on where to look for a used scooter that I found my pot of gold. It just so happened that he was selling a 1991 Bajaj Super in excellent working condition. It also just so happened that this was precisely what I wanted – no kidding. (This picture is not that scooter, but it is the same make and color, and it has the same retro awesomeness.)

I had to cross a couple more things off my list before actually buying the scooter, though. First, it has gears, and I had to learn how to drive it. Shantaram was a true gentleman when it came to this. He took the Super out of storage, filled it up with gas, and let me drive it all over the (rather extensive) Deccan College campus as often as I wanted before and after Marathi classes. Even his wife and daughter started just handing me the keys without question. Turns out it is easier than I thought to work a hand clutch and guess which gear to shift into. And, barring a little incident where I had to reminded of the existence and purpose of a choke, even Shantaram was impressed! The second item on the list stems from the fact that, as a foreigner, I am likely to be a cop magnet. This means I need a valid driver’s license… and getting one of those requires dealing with Indian bureaucrats. (And yes, everyone told me that’s just as bad as it sounds.)

So it was that last Friday, I got up at 7 a.m. with a plan to get to Pune’s Regional Transport Office with documents in hand by 8. My rickshaw-wallah seemed a little surprised I was going there, but I flatter myself that he was a bit impressed too. In any case, he was nice, and we got there a little before 8:15 with no extraneous “tours” or arguing about the fare. Whoo hoo!
I soon discovered, though, that the RTO does not open until 10. Being the day’s first customer, and a foreigner to boot, I was the center of attention for all the agents waiting out front (basically, they’re touts who are willing to help you cut the line and talk to officials for a fee). They wanted 650 rupees for a process that officially costs 30, so I politely declined and told them I already had my documents and would just wait. They were just surprised enough to leave me alone as I read my book, ate my banana, and watched the outdoor waiting area slowly fill up. First was sixtysomething guy who looked like the older, Indian version of one of my colleagues at the BLM, then a couple dudes who kept borrowing pens from the old guy and me. I made a mental resolution to let these guys get into line ahead of me, then follow them through the office to see where to go. Everyone had warned me that I would likely not be able to get the license without paying a bribe or at least a big pain in the butt, so I was doing my best to speak Marathi to my new buddies and be friends in case I needed a little intervention.

By 9:30, there were several dozen people milling around, and at 9:45, everyone jumped up and formed a messy line in front of the still-locked door. I ended up in a little scrum at the front thanks to the old man, who had told the people massing by the door that we were there first and would be entering first. Score one for the early birds! Unfortunately, the office did not open punctually at 10. As 10:15, then 10:30 came and went, I was getting a little sweaty, and a couple of the young dudes ahead of me seemed to be getting frustrated. In between the muttering and occasional calls for someone to open the office, they would bang on the door with increasing force. At one point, they were “knocking” so hard that the entire wall was shivering.

Indian patience saved the day, though, and no one was too angry when an official finally showed up to unlock the door sometime after 10:30, which means we had been waiting for more than 45 minutes in a line that now held a couple hundred people. The crowd was impatient to get inside, and being near, but not at, the front meant I felt the full force of the pushing but couldn’t actually see all the things I was about to trip over – like the door jamb and, just inside the door, the 3-foot high wall designed to herd people to the left as they entered the waiting room. As I went through the door, I had to catch myself from falling by holding onto the door frame, then I had to shove back into the line when I got stuck in a little eddy to the right as the crowd pushed left past the wall. It wasn’t actually scary, but I did drop from fifth or sixth in line to about 12th, then even further back when the RTO officials started yelling at everyone to sit down on a bench along the wall, which resulted in a very short and very sudden game of musical chairs.

The first stop inside was with a very stern looking woman in an RTO uniform who could have been a truck driver in another life. As I stepped up to her table, she politely motioned for me to move to one side, then started screaming at everyone in the waiting room. I understood enough of it to know she was telling the 100 or so people swirling around the room that if they didn’t sit down on the bench along one wall, she would make them all go outside. I think she would have done it, too, and apparently so did everyone else. They sat down and I didn’t argue when she told me I needed to staple some of my forms together. When I asked where to find one, she barked, “Ask someone!” Luckily, some teenagers in line had one, and I was back at the table within a minute. More worrisome was her insistence that I was missing a page on one of my forms, and I didn’t have much hope that she would follow my advice to just sign it on the first page. Instead, she told me to go outside to the xerox guy by the front gate of the compound and get a form from him. I must’ve looked a little stricken, because she then added quietly, “Just come straight back to me. Don’t wait in line again.” Yay! I would rather brave dirty looks as I breezed past the 200 people or so who were now waiting than queue up behind them… So I walked back across the now packed dirt parking lot, got a form from xerox-wallah, used his stapler to attach the new form to the old one (lesson learned), and breezed straight back in and handed the woman my forms, which now had a place for her to sign. She had one more surprise for me, though, she wanted ALL the forms stapled together, so I had to find my teenagers in line again. Sadly, I have reached the age where all teenagers look basically alike, so I asked the wrong group first before the guys who had the stapler spoke up and offered it again. Very sweet.

Next stop after my forms were duly stamped and signed: the cashier. I paid my 30 rupees and passed over my large packet of forms and documents and was given a receipt and told to go “teetay,” which means “over there.” I realized at this point that having to go to the xerox guy was something of a blessing in disguise, as he gave me change for a 100-rupee note. Indians are obsessed with small bills, and even fancy department stores will ask if you have smaller bills when you try to pay with a 500-rupee or, god forbid, a 1,000-rupee note, and I strongly doubt the RTO offers change of any kind.

Official receipt in hand, I now waited in another line to get my photo taken and fingerprint recorded. But when I got the front and they asked for my form, the whole line ground to a halt when I answered that the cashier had kept mine… and everyone in line behind me said the same thing. So we all stood around for 20 minutes or so while the forms were tracked down. After a while, I noticed a commotion over the half wall that separated the RTO clerks from the rest of the waiting room, and when I peeked over it, a saw a guy with a stack of forms reading out names. I went to stand near him and he barked at me to “wait outside!” I said I was next in line and that I would just wait there, but he wasn’t really listening, so I just stood back. A woman on a bench asked (in English) what my name was, and when I told her, she said he’d already called my name and that I should go ask him for my documents. I shrugged and said I’d wait for him to call it again, but she insisted I go ask him NOW, so I walked up behind him and – voila – saw my packet on top of the stack and grabbed it. Of course, I had lost a few more places in line by this point…

After getting my photo snapped and my fingerprint digitally recorded by an optical scanner, I was again told to “wait outside.” I had no idea if this meant “outside” in the small waiting area in this room, in the larger waiting area in the first room, or outside outside where we lined up originally. So I followed a teenage girl and her mother who were leaving another clerk’s desk back out to the main patio outside outside (so THAT’S what “outside” means!), and we squeezed into a little knot of people waiting by another door.

At this point, I started to freak out a little. I knew this was the exam part of getting the learning license, but I wasn’t totally sure what would be on the test or, more importantly, that that test would be in anything but Marathi. Most of the people waiting out front with me were holding study sheets showing an array of traffic signs, but the explanations of what each meant was in Marathi. Most of them looked nervous, too, more nervous that I thought they should be if identifying signs was all that was on the test. One woman’s hands were shaking as she looked over her sheet. I kept thinking, what if there are questions about traffic laws on here? I remembered all the weird questions on the AZ test about how many yards in advance of a turn one should signal or how many car lengths to leave between cars at different speeds. If any of this was on the test, I was screwed. If the test was not in English – which was starting to seem like a distinct possibility as I scanned the crowd and noticed that, out of the several hundred people waiting, I was the only foreigner – I was screwed. If I hadn’t filled out my papers correctly, I was screwed. Basically, I was going to have to work very very hard to get a learning license. I figured there was nothing I could do at this point, though, and resolved to wait.

After about 20 minutes, the door opened and the old man and all the young dudes I had been waiting with hurried out, and a guy started reading off names from the stack of documents he had in his hands. I was third or fourth to be called, so I pushed into a large, dark room filled with 20 or 30 rows of chairs and a big computer projection screen in front. There were metal rails in front of each row, and a little metal box mounted on the rail in front of each chair. The boxes each had three buttons in them that looked like they came straight off a 1960s NASA rocket. I wasn’t quite sure where to sit, but I noticed that the three or four people in there already were spread out in a weird pattern that didn’t quite look like they’d chosen their seats themselves, so I looked at my form again, saw the number 6 after a slew of acronyms and letters, and sat down in seat 6. At this point, I was freaking out more than a little no one had spoken anything but Marathi to me for quite a while, and I wasn’t sure how all this was going to work. As the room filled up, I looked at the Excel spreadsheet projected up on the front screen that showed all our names and birthdates (something that would never be displayed so publicly in the States!). My name was spelled right, but the fact I was sitting in room with more than a few people born the same year I graduated high school was a little weird. (There were some people older than me too, though, so don’t start crowing yet, Jeff Ficker!)

Once everyone was seated, my worst fears started to be confirmed. They RTO guy started explaining how to take the test, but the instructions were entirely in Marathi. Even worse, he was using that sing-songy inflection people adopt when they say the same thing multiple times a day every day. I only understood a tiny fraction of what he said, but I got that we should put all our papers on the floor (“kal” = down), not look around (“bagah” = look), and double check that our “seet numbur” was correct (“burroburr” = correct). He also used the word “butt-ton” about 15 times, but that one cognate was all I understood most of the time. I looked around to see if anyone else was as obviously confused as I was, but once again, I was the only foreigner, and the impending disaster I was facing began to seem a little bit humorous… so I shrugged (to myself) and waited for the test to begin.

Luckily, the first question that flashed up on the screen was in English as well as Marathi, and it was easy. I answered almost immediately that a sign with a big X over a person walking meant “pedestrians prohibited.” A recorded voice was reading, in Marathi, the question and all the answers, then there was a beep and a 10-second countdown before the answer flashed on the screen. I was right! The next question was similarly easy, but after I pushed the “butt-ton,” I took a surreptitious peek around me and noticed everyone else seemed to be waiting until *after* the beep to make their choices. D’oh! This was one of the things I missed in the instructions, so I hit the button again and hoped that poking it twice didn’t screw up the system or anything. I figured it would be OK, though, because the RTO website said 60% was a passing score. I kept track of all the answers I got right, and only missed one out of 10. So I wasn’t too nervous when the spreadsheet flashed on the screen again to show everyone’s score.

Someone at the RTO must be a big fan of The Scarlet Letter because five or six of the names near the end of the spreadsheet had a bright scarlet bar going right through them, and the final box said “FAIL” in bold letters. The RTO officials then called out, by seat number, everyone who failed and made them stand together on one side of the room. My first thought was how humiliating this was, but my second was a kind of amazed wonderment at how anyone could actually fail this test. There were only 10 questions, and every single one involved identifying traffic signs, from “ferry crossing” to “one way street.” As the spreadsheet scrolled back up to the beginning revealing more failing scores, I was starting to get a little nervous that my complete lack of understanding of the instructions might mean I failed. For a second, I thought it did. But then I saw that the red bar went through the name of the woman next to me and not mine. I posted a score of 8 out of 10, meaning my first (correct) answer must not have posted. I’m glad my lack of language skills has spurred a corresponding increase in my observational skills!

After the test, there were more instructions in Marathi I didn’t understand, so I was relieved when yet another teenager asked me for “my number.” I eventually figured out he meant what was my score. I asked if he passed, too, and we gave each other a big thumbs up when he said yes. I also resolved to follow him and his buddies to wherever we were supposed to go next. All of us had a little chat outside (in English) while we waited for our licenses. After about 20 minutes, my new buddies helped me again when they heard an RTO staffer call my name before I could push into the crowd myself. They told him to give my new license to me, he did, and then I was on my way, the proud new holder of an Indian learning driving license! I can now officially drive a geared motorcycle (or scooter) for the next six months if I have a licensed driver with me and (unofficially) by myself if the cops are in a decent mood.

I showed my new license to the two teachers and the other two students at the school and basked in the glory of being one of the few foreigners most of them knew who was daring (or stupid) enough to try and get an Indian driver’s license. And I did it all without bribing anyone or paying an agent!

On Saturday, Ayrel and I did a little shopping on Fergusson College Road, the Mill Avenue of Pune. I bought a motorcycle helmet with a visor that covers my full face. I’m not sure a full helmet is strictly necessary for a 150 cc scooter that probably doesn’t go much faster than 50 or 60 km/hour, but it may keep me from being a total cop magnet by making it slightly harder to tell I’m a foreigner. In any case, I look pretty bad-ass.

As of now, I am planning to drive the scooter home from Deccan College tomorrow afternoon. We have an early day, so I should be able to leave by 2:30, when the traffic isn’t too bad. Except for one large intersection where I have to turn right (the equivalent of a left in the States), my route isn’t too bad. I’m hoping to sneak through by following the first senior-citizen driver I see. Maybe it’ll even be my old buddy from the RTO!

I’ll post some photos when I get the Super home. Keep your fingers crossed for me!

UPDATE: I made it home safely on Super’s maiden voyage! It was exhilarating and terrifying all at once. Veering between those two emotions all afternoon left me with a little knot in my stomach. Now I’m having some Goa feni with Limca. Mmmmm, Limca.

The only hitch was running out of gas about a block from our place… I guess I’ll have to push it down the street to the gas station tomorrow. 😦

Our Indian Apartment

3 Sep

It’s raining today. It’s been raining more or less constantly for the past week, but as it’s coming down harder and faster today and neither Ayrel nor I has anyplace in particular to be, this seemed like a good time to offer up a tour of our apartment in Pune. Because of the aforementioned rain, this will be an interior tour only.

Our India Apartment from David Proffitt on Vimeo.

Everybody Loves Anna

19 Aug



We seem to be at the center of anti-corruption protests in Pune. An intersection just up the street from our hotel has been full of white-clad Anna Hazare supporters since we arrived on Wednesday. On Thursday, the protestors – mostly college students and professionals, according to news reports – staged a huge candle-light march along Jangli Maharaj Road that added color and noise to the already busy commercial street. There were so many marchers, it took more than an hour for them to pass walking five or six abreast in what is normally a traffic/parking lane. Like all the other pro-Anna marches across the country, though, this one stayed peaceful, and walking through it was not scary at all (especially not when compared to the terror crossing JM Road normally inspires).

The first protests we saw on Wednesday were crowds of a few dozen students chanting and waving flags as they marched up the street. Just a day later, the same thing happens every few hours, including the occasional group of protestors waving Indian flags and honking as they drive down the street on motorbikes and scooters. It’s actually quite inspiring to see the passion for reform passing from Pune’s many college students to other people. A rickshaw driver the other day smiled to himself the other day as he repeated what he read on the protestors’ hats: “I am Anna Hazare.” I laughed when I saw he was wearing the same kind of hat, albeit without the slogan, himself. I don’t know what it’s called, but it looks a little bit like the two-cornered white hats that diner waiters wore in the 1950s. Apparently it’s traditional headgear in some parts of rural India.

Unlike the protestors, though, our second full day in Pune was a lazy one. No appointments or places we needed to be, so we went to the Aga Khan Palace and then, incongruously, to the mall.

The mall could have been in suburban Phoenix, but the Aga Kahn Palace is an impressive Victorian-era estate where Gandhi, his wife, and his personal secretary were held under house arrest for more than two years by the British just before Indian independence. Both Gandhi’s wife, Katsura, and his secretary died and are buried there. Some of Gandhi’s ashes are buried there, too. Photographs, artifacts, and some charmingly ragged panels tell the story of Gandhi’s efforts to help India gain its independence from the Maharashtran perspective. Apparently, the village where he lived for several years while developing a model educational system for rural areas is a few dozen miles north of Pune in Maharashtra. Several of his mentors, including Gopal Krishna Gokale, are from Maharashtra, too. The things you can learn when going to local landmarks!