30 April 2011

A job for everyone

I had made friends with the lady at the supermarket in charge of the fruit and vegetable aisle. One day I had pointed to a bunch of greens and asked: “Dhantu soppu?” She was thrilled I knew the word for dhantu soppu. But I have no clue what it is in English – it’s a type of leafy green vegetable. After that, each time I came in she would take me around the store, pointing at things and telling me their names in Kannada. Mango. Mavina hannu. Coconut. Tengina kaayi. Rice. Akki. Tomato. Tamato. She pointed to a magazine. Booku, she said. Alla! Pustaka! I replied and she laughed out loud.

But I haven’t seen her for months now. She must have changed jobs. I noticed that people seem to change jobs often. This is a sign of a healthy and flexible job market. The staff at the supermarket seem to change every week.

There definitely doesn’t seem to be a shortage of jobs. On the contrary, many shops and restaurants seem overstaffed. Are three waiters really needed to serve a table of two customers? One will serve the vegetarian dishes, another the non-veg, and yet another the bread and rice. If you lift a serving spoon to help yourself to more rice, the waiter will rush over and insist on serving you. I still find this hard to get used to!

The other day I was at my neighbourhood Health & Glow shop (similar to Shopper’s Drug Mart in Canada or Di in Belgium). It’s not very big, only one room, but I counted 10 employees. At least five friendly shop girls asked me if I needed help with anything. I’m now used to being followed around as I browse and closely observed (mostly out of curiosity rather than suspicion) though at the beginning this used to really irk me. In India I’ve had to learn to ignore.

There seems to be a job for everyone, just like under communism, because some jobs seem to be non-jobs. Some examples:

The security guard who stands at the exit of supermarkets with a hole-punch. He asks for your receipt and then punches a hole in it. But he doesn’t look very closely at the receipt or even inspect your bags. So what’s the point?

Then there’s the guy who works in the parking garage of shopping malls. His job is to press the button on the machine which spits out a ticket and then hand the ticket over to the driver.

There’s a lot of work for button pressers. There’s the elevator operator whose job is also to push on buttons. You tell him which floor and he’ll push the corresponding button. Then he’ll push on the button for the fan. If you protest he’ll gladly turn it off. When you arrive at your floor he’ll tell you you’ve arrived. Helpful but definitely not indispensable.

There’s even better… in the bathrooms of some hotels and shopping centres, there’s an employee who hands you a towel after you’ve washed your hands. From reports I’ve received from my husband this seems to be a lot more customary in the mens' than the ladies’.

In India you don’t have to fill your car’s tank at the service station, bag your groceries at the supermarket, or waste your energy opening doors, lifting serving spoons or pushing on buttons. There’s always someone to do it for you!

28 April 2011

More weird web searches

It’s fun looking at blog stats. I especially like clicking on ‘recent keyword activity’ to see what people typed into google to get to my blog. Some of the results are quite funny! I had already listed a few here. But since that was over three years ago, I’m including a few of the more recent weird web searches below:

my wife orders me to wear churidar in home and outside

what is the ideal day to cut your hair

in the sun yelling at her maid

saturday haircut is not auspicious

according to panchang which is a good day to buy a car

escape death with ayyappa blessings

sanskrit mantras to be recited at the time of engagement

why does clothing from india smell

I love the smell of mud when it just begins to rain

vintage automatic watch restoration in bangalore

good grinder/mixer for desi cooking

are the idols and elephant gods hindustanis worship babylonian

head shakes vigourously after meditation

indian aunties bathing neighbour watching from window

where to get pressure cooker repaired in little india singapore

after it rains these tiny little bugs squeeze through my window

10 April 2011

Old is gold

Above and below: Amethyst in Chennai while it still existed.

About six months ago, I heard the bad news. I can’t remember who I heard it from first because everyone seemed to be talking about it: Amethyst in Chennai was closing down! Why on earth would it close down?! This was my immediate reaction. This beautiful colonial mansion was a Chennai landmark. It was very popular with locals and tourists alike. It was a unique and special place. I felt physically sick when I learned why it was closing down: the family owning this heritage building decided to have it demolished and an apartment building built in its place!

Three years ago I wrote about Amethyst here. It was one of my favourite places in Chennai. This old heritage mansion in a quiet, leafy neighbourhood housed some exclusive shops but its USP was its lovely café and restaurant and beautiful garden. It was a pleasant place to spend a quiet afternoon with a good friend or a good book.

Amethyst closed at the end of December. The city has lost not only a favourite haunt for many but also an architectural and historical gem. A ‘new’ Amethyst has opened up not far away from the original, in a newly built building. An effort has been made to reproduce some of the unique atmosphere by keeping the same colonial furniture and even the floor tiles and planting a lush garden but of course it’s just not the same.

It’s unfortunate that heritage properties are not valued in India. With the property boom in recent years, many families decide that old houses and large gardens are worth sacrificing for the returns to be made in the real estate market. The financial aspect is understandable but do these architectural heirlooms have no sentimental or historical value? Why is this?

I got a partial answer when I attended a talk in Bangalore recently by Ajit Koujalgi from the Pondicherry branch of INTACH (Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage), an organisation which works to protect India’s architectural heritage. According to Mr Koujalgi, Indians seem to value property less than land. Land is more important than buildings. They are not attached to their houses. What they value more is intangible heritage like family, values, rituals and religion.

Above: Villa Pottipati s a family home in Bangalore which has been converted into a heritage hotel.

A city’s unique character is lost when its traditional architecture is torn down to make way for the shiny brand-new. Unfortunately there are no laws in India protecting heritage properties. According to INTACH Pondicherry, 60% of the city’s 1500 listed buildings have been demolished in the last 10 years! But they are doing their best to try to preserve the architectural and urban heritage of Pondicherry, which sets an example for other Indian cities. Mr Koujalgi explained that it’s been a long and tough battle trying to garner government interest and support for the restoration of Pondicherry’s heritage buildings. Preservation for preservation’s sake was not enough to convince government officials. But when they focussed on the potential for the promotion of tourism that heritage conservation has, more people took interest. There are more and more heritage buildings in Pondicherry being converted into shops, hotels and restaurants, and yes weekends see the arrival of many visitors coming to soak in the city’s unique charm.

Above: Hotel de l'Orient in Pondicherry. Restored with the help of INTACH. Like Villa Pottipati, it's part of the Neemrana group.

Here are some other examples of heritage properties in Pondicherry which have been restored thanks to the efforts of INTACH:

If you go to Pondicherry, visit the INTACH Heritage Centre, located in a beautifully-restored traditional Tamil-style house.

Pick up a copy of the Heritage Trail Map here or at the Tourist Office.

INTACH also organises Heritage Walks during the tourist season (November to February).

INTACH, 62 rue Aurobindo Street, Pondicherry, tel: +91 (0)413 222 5991, www.intachpondicherry.org

(Pondicherry photos courtesy of Tourist Office)

07 April 2011

F(R)RO revisited

The sign at the 'old' office

Now that I’m back with a different type of visa, I had to go re-register myself with the authorities. About a year and a half ago, I wrote about what it was like to visit the Foreigner’s Registration Office. I described it as Kafkaesque… the office was in a decaying room at the Police Commissioner’s Office; there were no signs, no queues, no one to tell you where to go, piles of files and papers everywhere, and no computers in sight.

Since my last visit, many things have changed at the FRO. First of all, the name. It has gained an extra R and become the Foreigner’s Regional Registration Office. This means the good old FRO has climbed up an extra rung in the Indian administrative machine and gained new powers. Files no longer have to be sent to New Delhi. Everything is processed sur place, which means the process should be quicker.

The new and improved FRRO has also moved to a brand new office, which happens to be in my neighbourhood. I’ve read that the building belongs to a local politician. It was unoccupied for a long time before Mr Politician cajoled Mr Police Commissioner to move the FRRO into his building. (Left: the spanking-new office.)

Many other things have also changed. I first went to pick up the application form and list of documents to submit. I went over it carefully with the bespectacled-and-moustached bureaucrat behind the window. I had lots of questions for him. How many photocopies are needed? And how many photographs? Does the liability form need to be notarised? Do the photographs have to be glued or stapled? He answered all my questions patiently and with a smile. “Only one-one copy. Two photos only. Notary is not necessary. No gluing or stapling, Madam.” I was taken aback. Only one copy of each document? 2 photos, not 6? No notary needed? It sounded too good to be true.

I returned a few days later armed with all the required documents but also extra photocopies, some spare passport-sized photos, other documents that were not on ‘the list’ but may suddenly be required, and a glue stick! I knew I would be spending most of the day there so I also brought plenty of reading material and a lot of patience.

I was given a number: 33. The electronic number system was a new addition. 30 minutes later, my papers were being scrutinised by the first official. He leafed through my papers while I watched, fingers crossed. Would a document be missing? Would he ask for something not on ‘the list’? I held my breath as he examined my documents and checked them off the checklist. I passed! He told me to go to the next person, a man sitting behind a computer. This is another big change: the huge piles of files have been replaced with computers!

The piles of files at the old office.

Official number two gave me the green light and directed me to the first floor. A blast of air-conditioning hit me as I opened the glass door. This is another welcome change to the new-and-improved FRRO experience. Here the number system was operating again. As I waited, I had a good look around. An employee was directing people where to go. There was a long counter with glass windows, each clearly numbered. “Eatables are not allowed”, warned a sign on the wall. Next to it was a map of the world. Behind each window was a computer. There were many new faces. An office peon had the job of shuttling files up and down between floors.

When my number was called out by the electronic voice: “Token number three three”, I took my pile of papers to the counter. They were once again examined by two more officials, who scribbled details on a paper. Finally I was directed to the row of windows where I handed in my file. I was then asked to sit and wait. I spent the rest of the day sitting and waiting. When I inquired about the progress of my file, I was told that it was still with “the higher authorities”. “Take your lunch and come,” the friendly official suggested.

The FRRO’s upgrade in status and facilities reflects India’s developing immigration policy. More and more people are coming to India to take advantage of the country’s growth and invest in business opportunities. In the past year there have been many changes implemented across all visa categories. As in every country, these policy changes reflect not only economic realities but also security concerns. Bangalore’s FRRO has received a huge boost in human and financial resources. The improvements in the services and facilities they now offer are welcome.

However, it’s now been three weeks since I submitted my application for registration. And I’m still waiting…