Sunday, November 29, 2009

My first day in India

November 23, 2009; 8 pm:

The morning of November 21 at 9:30, I awoke to a knock at the door. I was greeted with a smaller guy who looked at me and said, “brefa,” which I took to mean breakfast. Just to make sure, he made the motion of eating. I told him I’d be right down…in so many charades. I quickly slapped on a pair of jeans and bustled down the narrow stairway to the dining room. There was a single table with about 6 place settings. There were two men sitting at the table, one very large and jolly looking with a pair of rectangular specs sitting on his face, the second one a smaller guy wearing a red and black nylon jersey. One of the servers came up to me and said, “omele?” I of course agreed to that, because it sounded a lot like the familiar English word ‘omelette.’ He brought me out a delicious milky and sugary coffee, no doubt the famous Chennai filtered coffee that I’d read about, followed by a plate sized omelette with onions and jalapenos in it with 5 pieces of white toast on the side. Do they think I’m American or something? Haha. I gladly accepted and got to work quickly, but soon noticed that they were bringing Indian food to the other men across the table, so I put on my “I’m really curious” look and pointed at what they had. The server’s charades indicated that he understood that I wanted some of the Indian food also, which he quickly produced. The food consisted of a bowl of lentil soup made with red chillies, parsley, basil, anise, and some other spices, rice pancakes (dosas), and some other paste that was just as spicy as everything else I was eating that morning. I found out later that all of that food cost me only 50 cents…I was shocked!

Seeing the men across the table, I did what I do in every other situation where there are people, I started a conversation in English hoping that the others speak English. I was pleasantly surprised to find that I could understand the large gentleman quite well. I asked them how long they were staying, and the big guy said he’d been here for 3 years and probably would be staying a bit longer. The smaller guy also was there for an extended stay. Next question: What do you do? The big guy, whose name I learned was Ivan, said that he was a regional manager for a company named Datacraft, which is a software development company partnered with Cisco sytems in the U.S.. Yet another sign of the Indian IT and technology boom. He’s a business and marketing guy. The other guy, whose name is Patma, works for Tata motors. Tata basically deals with everything from salt to motors. The fact of the matter is that Ivan and I are now really good friends based on that first conversation. We talked all about the stock markets, Indian companies, market cap, blah blah, finance, blah. We make a good pair. After our conversation, I hurried back up the stairs to my room, because I knew that Raghavendra, my contact in Chennai, would be back for me.

It was my first rickshaw ride and I was pumped! Raghavendra, my contact in Chennai, had flagged down one of these motorized yellow buggys with three golf cart wheels, bike handlebars for steering, and a very rickety bench in the back. He had agreed on a price of 120 rupees. Barely had my butt hit the vinyl bench before the barefooted driver pulled an emergency brake looking lever in the floor, sparking a throaty dirt-bike noise from the engine of the vehicle. We were off! First of all, I’m just completely confused by this driving on the left hand side of the road thing, but if that’s not enough, then the people crossing four lanes of traffic, sudden stops, impetuous u-turns, and honking certainly pushed my mind into boggledom. I looked at my knuckles, the capillary action turning them white as I clenched the thin, rusted bar in front of me. I didn’t loose my grip.

I eyed the now sun-bathed and bustling shops on the street, most of them in Hindi, but some throwing in some English words. Most of the signs are dingy pixilated with a worn, pastel look to them. There were people lying, sitting, kneeling, standing, etc., etc.. Some were cooking dosas on their wooden carts with bike wheels, others lentil soup (dal) with chapatti (a bread). There was no sign of hygiene amongst the dirt and trash, but they didn’t seem to care. There were vendors of every kind—electronics, baked goods, lime sodas, freshly pressed sugarcane drinks, a neon sign advertising insurance every now and again. The heat and the humidity seemed to temper as the breeze swept across me.

I felt like a 19th century British explorer making my way to an archaeological dig or something. I could just imagine having to loosen my belted coat and wipe the sweat just below my pith helmet. My khaki pants were all a jumble and sticking to my legs, and my mustache was way too much facial hair for the heat.

“Come!” I heard amidst the daydream. Raghavendra was paying the man the agreed upon 120 rupees ($2.40) for our half-hour ride. We were parked in front of a gigantic white building sporting impressive front gates, mustached guards, and groves of palm trees. The sign on top said Le Meridien Hotel. ‘Yup, that’s the one,” I thought to myself. Raghavendra and I strolled around the asphalt cul-de-sac as our rickshaw melded into the line of traffic, not having bothered to look both ways before diving in. We made our way up the broad marble steps and then were greeted with a hello and a smile from an Indian guard with a large, 19th century British mustache dressed in a green uniform, boots, and a pith helmet…coincidence? I think not. As the guard opened the door, I just looked up and gazed. “Damnit, I’m such a tourist,” I thought in disgust. Nonetheless, I was intrigued by the dome ceiling and star-shaped skylights. My gaze shifted downward and I observed a large foyer with Indian carpets, fine wooden furniture, and glass tables, servants bustling to and fro. It was just too much.

We approached the front desk and asked for the managing director. The kind clerk pointed in a direction and told us to ascend the stairs. “One step at a time,” I thought in a practiced manner. “Smile and say thank you, you dope,” I chided myself.

“Thank you,” I said with a large grin on my face.

Raghavendra and I made our way up the stairs and then approached a door labeled “Managing Director.” We walked in. There was a large leather sofa and a glass stand with six different newspapers on it. I could see workers behind a glass wall in front of me typing away on their computers. A man came out and asked us if we’d like coffee, tea, or water. “Water!” I bursted out. I hadn’t had any water since dinner on my Lufthansa flight the night before. I calmly gulped the water down and reached for a copy of The Hindu, India’s National Newspaper, established 1878. The front was slathered with IT news. I got through about half an article, when the door to the managing director’s office opened and a thin Indian man with gold-rimmed specs emerged. He was well mannered and spoke better English than I was used to hearing. A copy of my resume and a cover letter that I’d written a year ago lay across his desk. “Good old Arvind!,” I thought to myself.

The man said, “so, tell me about your project, it sounds very interesting.” So I did. Then he said, “I hear you’re a musician.” He had certainly read my resume and maybe talked to Arvind. I told him that, yes I was a singer and I was really excited to visit with the Indian culture. I also offered up that I might sign up for Indian dance classes, trying to get a laugh or a smile out of him. It worked. We talked at ease about some Chennai music festivals and then I asked him about himself. He deferred back to me, spurring conversation for a moment longer. Then he said, “well, we have three restaurants, one is continental fare, one Indian fine dining, and one a seafood restaurant. Which one would you like?”

“Jackpot!” I thought. Raghavendra and I shared a glance. I didn’t even hesitate…”The Indian fine dining,” I said assuredly.

“Good,” he said. And then he typed some number into the phone and said something in Hindi. Two minutes later, the manager of the restaurants and the head chef of the Indian restaurant were there shaking my hand in greeting. In short, they told me that I could come and go as I please and they’re huge staff would be happy to have me and answer my questions. Then they asked how long I was staying.

“One month and fifteen days,” I told them, which was fine with them I suppose because they just nodded. All three of the men handed me their business cards and wrote down their personal cell numbers. They each said that if I need anything to give them a call. I could start when I wanted.