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Posts Tagged ‘indian time’

I had watched carefully as the carpenter measured out the space for our bookshelves. He was a small man – no taller than five feet – but he had no trouble imagining our bookshelves as six feet high.

I showed him some images on my computer of bookshelves and tv stands that I’d found online.  He nodded, talked to Nisha in Hindi a bit and we agreed he would come back in one week. I asked him how much it would be. He calculated out each item – two bookshelves, one tv stand, and one entry table with shelves.

“Six thousand?” he said.  This was less than $130 for four pieces of custom made furniture.  I still couldn’t get over it- I keep getting shocked by the low cost of anything custom-made.

Our new bookshelves

Of course, he worked on Indian time and the bookshelves actually took two weeks to make. And he tried to apply a ‘gora tax’, attemping to raise the price to 8,000 rupees for no particular reason (we still paid him 6,000).  But now, here they are — our bookshelves and tv stand made to the exact dimension of our space.

Yet while I marvel over my new bookshelves, I’m starting to realize that my love of all things ‘custom-made’ sets me apart from everyone else around me.  Indians themselves place no premium on an item being custom-made. It’s a clear-cut case of ‘the grass is always greener’. Western people love custom-made items because they are exclusive – it implies that your item is special and probably more expensive. Indians, though, can have anything custom made. What they love is an imported item, or a well known brand (I’m going to pause here and say that I know this is a gross generalization. But it’s what I have observed for the most part).

I had initially found it interesting that most Indians suggested furniture stores for our bookshelves instead of using a carpenter.  Every single suggested store carried expensive imported furniture. All we wanted was something cheap, since we’re only here for a year. But no one could fathom that we would rather have something custom made, even if it was cheaper. Nisha finally put us in touch with the carpenter she knew, but it was only after we’d driven around to various furniture stores.

And this attitude pervades into other items as well. When Daniel asked around his office about getting suits made, most people were shocked. Why would he want a custom made suit when he is from New York and can go to Bloomingdales or Macys? Why wouldn’t he want the brand? It was a shocking response to Americans who wish they could have a suit custom made to their exact measurements.

It’s also the same for women’s clothes. Expats run around looking for a great tailor to copy designs they see in magazines. Locals like to go to the chic Indian designer boutiques or the overpriced Western clothes in malls (although they will all get each item fixed by their tailor eventually).

It makes sense – you always want what you can’t have (or what other people can’t have). In my case, I’m just glad we’ve got our bookshelves. They may not be imported, but they surely fit right into our space.

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Our shipment has arrived

I couldn’t believe I had to stand here and watch another heated discussion over cardboard.

Our security guard and the man from our moving company were going ten rounds over which of them got to keep the boxes after all of our belongings had been removed.  I watched, bemused, but nothing could keep me from the happiness of seeing my own items slowly emerge from their lucrative cardboard containers.

We have been in our apartment since June 30th. We had been told our shipment (clothes, kitchenware, some furniture – everything) would arrive the next day, on July 1st. Of course, as with most things here, it took quite a bit longer. Our shipment couldn’t be scheduled to come into India because the monsoon and overbooking had backed up flights. The monsoon?! As though they didn’t know a monsoon was coming and couldn’t have planned for it.  Then the airline left half our shipment behind on the layover in Qatar. Then it had to get through customs.

But here it was, 15 days late, and I still couldn’t get unpacked because somehow cardboard needs to be a recurring theme in my life. Daniel finally stepped in.

“What is the problem?”

“Sir, your security guard says he helped unload so he should get boxes in return.”

“So… again, what’s the problem?”

“Well sir, these boxes belong to our company.”

“No, they belong to me. Don’t they?”

“Well… yes sir. I guess sir.”

“Ok. So lets give him some boxes and you take the rest of the boxes.”

There he was, my mediating hero, solving the second great cardboard dilemma of 2010. Our security guard went downstairs, triumphant at his (partial) victory, while the movers continued to unpack.

As each item came out, our apartment felt more like home. But I was also struck by how many items we’d brought that we wouldn’t need. Every cotton polo shirt or light spring cardigan now appears to me as heavy as winter clothing. I’ve gotten so used to wearing light kurtas and thin cotton leggings or flimsy nylon t-shirts and linen capris.

While we packed most of our winter clothes, we were still foolish to think that we could just fully pack up our old apartment and transfer it uniformly to the opposite side of the world. A good percentage of our stuff is going to be shoved to the backs of closets, never to see the Indian light of day and only re-emerging into the New York air.

The (almost) finished apartment

But it’s ok because we’ve already been preparing ourselves for some of these replacements. Nisha has bought pans for roti’s and a pressure cooker for rice – our wok will probably just get a year off. I’ve already stocked up on free-flowing lightweight clothing and so the out-of-place elements in my closet will just seem new again in a year. Even our kettle will get a breather, since Indian chai needs a pot to boil both water and milk (used in the same proportion).

But while some items are replaced, for the most part it’s a merging of the two worlds – our kitchenware sits in a cupboard next to one of the ubiquitous gas cylinders everyone has here.  Photos of family and friends now intermingle with our new bar and rocking chair.  We can watch our DVDs while looking out the window to see huge Indian crows staring back. It’s a new kind of home — but with our belongings arriving late on Indian time, we’d at least been given a couple weeks to prepare.

Another view of the apartment

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I am beginning to understand the root of “Indian Time” a little bit better. It’s not (as my Indian friends at home would have me believe) just an Indian way of life where they are allowed to be late to things because its inherent to Indians.

I think in actuality it’s related to something much simpler. Indians are late to everything because, at least here in Mumbai, there are NO STREET ADDRESSES.

That’s right. Street addresses do not exist. In fact, street names are barely recognized. Instead, there’s a system, that doesn’t work, of just telling someone what ‘landmark’ you’re near, and then hoping for the best. But when they say landmark, they just mean another place or business. So when we give someone directions to our apartment, it goes something like this:

“It’s La Paloma, it’s on St Cyril Road across from St Anthony’s road. Do you know it? Ok, well do you know where Turner Road is? It’s off Turner Road, towards St Andrews College. No? Do you know where Holy Family Hospital is? How about the American Express bakery? Yes? You want me to meet you there and then show you? Ok. I’ll meet you at the bakery.”

This is really how it has to be done. Because you can’t just say “Oh when you get to the bakery go straight, turn right on St Dominic and then left on St Cyril because NONE of these roads would have a sign indicating that that is actually the name of the street.

Not to mention that the main road, Turner Road, actually (if you look at a map) technically changes into Gurunanak Marg right before our house – but no one knows that. To them it’s still just Turner Road. Even after it THEN turns into Perry Rd.

And you’d think you could solve this problem with a driver, but you can’t. Today I wanted to go a store to buy some Indian style clothes. The store is well known and its called FabIndia (I could delve into the awesomeness of that name, but I won’t now). And when you look it up online the address is: Navroze Building, Next To HDFC Bank, Pali Hill (Yes, that is the actual full address). So you’d think you could find it easily – but you would be wrong.

When we went to Pali Hill (an area in Bandra), near the market there is an HDFC Bank but no FabIndia. We drove around, asked around, looked around. Nothing. We finally called FabIndia and solved the mystery. We were meant to know its next to the OTHER HDFC bank in Pali Hill. Up Zigzag road. Not by the market. Obviously.

This applies to any address. For example, one of my personal favorites is the address for Phoebe’s groomer. It is (and I mean this is the actual mailing address):

Tail Waggers Pet Salon
Near Hotel Mini Punjab
Pali Village Behind Hawaiian Shack
16th Road
Bandra West, Mumbai 400050

It’s hilarious, completely Indian and yet an all encompassing theory to explain the Indian loose relationship with time. It’s inherently frustrating but you can’t help but love a city where people find their way around SOLELY based on trusting everyone’s local knowledge.

So if you want to come visit me, just remember: La Paloma doesn’t exist. Just go to the tree in the middle of the road in St Anthonys Rd next to the hospital, next to Lemongrass Restaurant, next to CitiBank, next to Crosswords bookshop. Then ask someone where to go. And don’t worry if you’re late- we’re all on ‘Indian Time’ here.

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It was a moment I’ve been oddly dreading.

At 10am this morning we left our guesthouse and went over to the empty apartment. Waiting for us was Nisha, our new housekeeper, arriving for her first day. She’d been recommended to us through an expat group and we were relieved to have found someone so quickly and someone who didn’t want to live with us (often a requirement here).

I’ve been of two minds about having a housekeeper. One side says: it’s a job for this person, they’re making a fair wage, it’s not that much work compared to larger families. But the other side, the side that has this weird American anti-colonialist guilt keeps saying: how can I pay someone the low amount that they’re asking for? It’s criminal. She’s almost twice your age – she’s supposed to pick up after YOU?  Pick up after yourself.But rationality wins the day. We had accepted the wage she asked for, so it pushed my guilty conscience a bit to the side.

When we stepped out to meet her she took to Phoebe right away, which put me at ease. She and I decided that first up we would go shopping for some household goods.

It turns out that she had previously been working for 12 years in catering, a job that required her to get up at 3:30am every morning to travel down to South Mumbai and begin cooking very early in the morning. She’d gotten sick of it and wanted to be able to spend more time with her two sons. This job will allow her to live at home and keep more normal hours – even if her home is a full 2 hours by train from ours. Guilt for her travel time? Or happiness that a woman who wanted a more manageable job has found one?

She helped me navigate the home store – while every sign and number was in English, the people working IN the store seemed more comfortable and ready to help in Hindi. My early reluctance was beginning to fade. I need this help, I thought.  Then I came up to the register to pay for my odds and ends – cleaning supplies, a few odd dishes to tide us over, an iron – and I looked at the total. I looked at Nisha to see if she saw. She didn’t. The total was only a little bit less than what she was earning in a month. The number blinked at me from the register and I quickly moved to pay.

I met Daniel back at the apartment and I didn’t have time to dwell on the blinking number still burning in my mind.  We had to go get furniture if we ever wanted our empty apartment to turn into our home.

Home Town - India's "Largest Home Making Destination"

We left Nisha with Phoebe and drove out to the aptly named Home Town – an Ikea-esque store in every visible sense. But we found that there was one difference: like every other part of Mumbai, Home Town existed in India Time.

India Time refers to the fact that Indians don’t really seem to suffer from the grips of punctuality. There’s always a traffic jam, always something making everyone late or slower or arriving the next day. And no one here seems to mind because they all live in India time.

Daniel, however, does not. We started inquiring about furniture. “How long until we could have this couch delivered?”

“25 days. It’s not in stock.”
“And this one?”
“25 days as well. Also not in stock.”
“Why don’t you show us things that are IN stock.”
“Ok, this couch here is in stock. 6 days for delivery”
“Why would it take 6 days to deliver something you already have?”

And on and on it went. Our customer service representative, who’d greeted us with a badge that said “Ask me for help!”, was continuously confused by these two gora (aka white people) who didn’t seem to live in the same time zone that they did.  Why ever would we need a mattress quickly? Don’t we understand that things in Mumbai don’t just appear, even if they are in a store only a short drive from our house?

The conversation continued. Daniel asked to speak to the manager. He got them down to two days. It was consensus.

And as a bonus we were going to get voucher for a certain amount off since we bought a bed and mattress set. But the voucher was upstairs. Then it was lost. Then they needed a new one. I looked at Daniel – if he had been a cartoon character steam would have been coming out of his ears as he tried to remain calm. We had to get back to meet an electrician. It would be ok though – they’re all on Indian time too. They expected us to be late.

We came home to a happy Phoebe who looked from Nisha to us and back again. She had given her seal of approval. And as we dropped her off at the train I watched her walk away feeling like the day had gone as well as it could. This is the world we’re living in. Indian time and unfair-seeming wages and all – it was ours now. And now at least we’ll have a guide who can help try to keep us on the right track.

(Just FYI, for anyone who is concerned Nisha is not our housekeeper’s real name. I’ll be using aliases throughout this blog for anyone who specifically hasn’t mentioned that they don’t mind me using their real names)

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