Arrival, and Adjustments

We arrived a week ago, in the early hours of the morning, which is when the international flights come in.  Two from IJM met us at the airport and drove us to our new apartment.  The journey was a blur, though I do remember seeing at times ceramic pots along the median of the divided highway, containing trees or bushes or palms, and the curb was painted in alternating sections of yellow and green.

Because of the hour at which we arrived, after flights from New Orleans, then Houston, and then Frankfurt, our first experience of this new city was really the street, at lunchtime later that day, when two of our new colleagues came to take us to a cafe and to give us a first walking tour of the neighborhood.  Because I had no experiences really yet in this country, with which to process everything around us, I kept striving to match everything I saw and heard into accounts and stories previously told of this region.

Before we left the U.S., we saw a TED talk by the author, speaker, and mythologist Dr. Devdutt Pattanaik, titled “India is Not Chaotic.”  The TED talk opens with a photo of an Indian street, cars, rickshaws, pushcarts, motorcycles, scooters, and pedestrians, all intermixed.  Dr. Pattanaik contends that India is not chaotic; that the concept of chaos does not really exist in the society.  Instead, he argues that the street should be viewed as a public space that, unlike American highways with their prohibitions on bicycles and horses, does not exclude anyone from access.  Instead, there is a place in the order for everyone.  He notes that there are many ways in which order and patterns do manifest themselves in the country, including by the spectacular fractal designs, called rangoli in the north and kolams in the south, often drawn by women on the doorsteps on the morning.

So this is what was on my mind as we first stepped out into the street.  The sidewalks are often disturbed by trees emerging from the center of the walkway itself, sometimes with the concrete cut away to make room for the tree, and so we walked, as one does, in the street itself.   We live in a residential neighborhood, on a leafy tree-lined street of three-story houses intermixed with a handful of apartment buildings, all with balconies.  The homes are orange, yellow, pink, ochre, and blue, with different heights and setbacks, some with circles or spirals as the architectural motif and others with squares.  The comfortable diversity of styles brings to mind Hyde Park in Chicago, or perhaps West Hollywood and other neighborhoods in Los Angeles, and is quite appealing.

As in Hyde Park, the residential area is bordered by more commercial streets, with restaurants, groceries, and other stores. [1]  And here we reached the street as described by Dr. Pattanaik.  He showed in his talk a static photo, a birds’-eye view looking down the street lengthwise.  He did not show, in his talk, a video of a person crossing the street.  The traffic does not stop for the pedestrian, and the pedestrian must not stop for, but merely dodge, the traffic.  I thought that the streets here exclude those who lack the courage to cross them.   (Once so far I’ve crossed a street while a cow conveniently held up traffic in one direction for me, and once by following a fearless nun across many lanes of traffic).

This thought about exclusion repeated itself, more insistently, two days later, as we sat in a rickshaw caught in a traffic jam at a railroad crossing.  Two steams of traffic, each moving in opposite directions, converged head-on and were stopped on the tracks, until little by little, pieces from each group slipped through to cross and free up space.  The streets exclude those who lack the courage to get held up while crossing a live railway, I thought, as I examined the cars around me for signs of body damage, but saw nothing more serious than a scratched bumper.[2]  (For a rebuttal to Dr. Pattanaik, see this in India’s Economic Times, noting that there is a crash every minute in India, and a death from a crash every 3.7 minutes).[3]

And so we have tried in the last week to engage with the city, to not exclude ourselves, and to not be afraid.  While work, and adjusting our sleep schedules, and setting up the apartment have taken some time, we have ventured out of our neighborhood into the heart of the city twice now.  The first time, the evening when we sat in a rickshaw at a railroad crossing, was to attend a University of Chicago Harper Lecture, by Professor Christopher Berry of the Harris School of Public Policy, on India’s Municipal Finance Challenger.  (The Harper Lectures are a series of alumni events, held twice annually, in which Chicago sends out several of its professors to cities in the U.S. and globally, to deliver lectures on their current research.  They are among the most popular alumni events).  The most significant challenges, Professor Berry noted, are in the developing world, where the urban population is poised to overtake the rural population in a few decades, or less, and where vast majority of the world’s megalopolises are located.  It was probably the best Harper Lecture I’ve attended, in part because the alumni all were living the trends Professor Berry discussed, and in part because it was the least pretentious Q&A I’ve ever seen at one of these events.

The second time we ventured downtown together was on Sunday, to visit a church that interested us.  It offered an organ, two violinists, and a very liturgical order of worship.  Despite being the type of place founded over 150 years ago in the colonial times, and featuring plaques on the wall memorializing spectacular deaths of congregants in centuries past (cholera; tiger), it was no longer a bastion of the Scottish military.  Only a handful of people in a congregation of 600 families stood out as obviously non-locals, and we met several people who had been worshiping there for several decades, as had their parents before them.  This church also had the good fortune to be located, as we discovered after services, a few blocks from one of the city’s most famous bookstores.   Before we found this one, though, we discovered two other new bookstores (books for 399 rupees!), a good used bookstore (books for 150 rupees!), and an outdoor stall selling India After Gandhi (70 rupees!).  Back in the U.S., we had received and essentially ignored the advice that this city has an excellent selection of new and used bookstores, with prices cheaper than Amazon.  On this excursion we restricted ourselves to four: a guide, with maps, to the city itself; a guide to sites to visit on weekends within 300 km of the city; The Portrait of a Lady collected short stories by Khushwant Singh, who was a newspaper editor and member of Parliament; and The Argumentative Indian, by Amartya Sen.

I have also ventured downtown, with two more experienced fellows from IJM, for shopping.  There is a tradition in this office that, when a new woman arrives as an intern or a fellow, some of the other women take her out shopping on her first Saturday for kurtas and salwars.[4]  It is a lovely tradition.  The light cotton fabric of a kurta is designed for the heat, in a way few clothes (and fewer business casual clothes) available in the U.S. are, and I am glad to ditch dull suits for brighter block-print patterns.  During this shopping trip, I thought of William Dalrymple’s description in White Mugals of those British officers and enlisted men in eighteenth-city India who switched from western garb to salwar, as relinquishing their Britishness and “turning Turk” or “going native.”  Nonsense, at least today.  I will stay cool, and I will continue to wonder how Scots and Brits dealt with sunburn as they spread across the world.

This coming week likely holds the end of the initial orientation program at work, though the immersion in cases, criminal procedure, and the penal code will continue, and the beginning, perhaps, of the first assignments.  We have been settling in, and learning our way around.   Things are becoming more familiar.  On Saturday we lit the propane stove in the kitchen for the first time, and cooked our first meal (dal, and okra with tomatoes), and we are gradually learning the tricks to coax the washing machine into washing, rinsing, and spinning dry the clothes.


[1] A key difference is that, unlike in Hyde Park, in our new neighborhood, one can buy socks at a store more suited for the purpose than a Walgreen’s.

[2] Cars in Hyde Park, frankly, had more dings and dents than those around me here, but there was little social pressure there to repair such things, which were thought to induce thieves to search for a more marketable car.

[3] Soren would also note a story told to him, by a friend who moved from Mumbai to Chicago.  The Mumbaikar was initially surprised to see cars marked being driven by student drivers being given only a slightly wider berth than any other car on the road.  In Mumbai, the student car receives a bubble around out it the likes of which no other car ever sees.  The difference, of course, is due the efficiency of the insurance markets and court systems.

[4] Salwars and their close relation, churidars are, really, two styles of hammer pants.

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