Weekend In Pune

Last weekend, before the flood disaster, we drove to Pune with my co-worker. Pune is about 100 miles from Mumbai and there’s a three-lane express highway. Still, it took three hours to get there and four hours to get back, due to heavy rain and insane traffic on the way out of and back into Mumbai. But it was worth the trip.

When we drove there, it was dark, and we didn’t see much of the landscape. What we did see where heavy trucks crawling up the Ghats mountain range at the speed of snails – except we didn’t actually see them, because hardly any of them had any rear lights, and a lot didn’t have any front lights either. Of course, that didn’t stop them from using the middle lane or pulling over to pass an even slower truck without much notice. Add to that a good amount of wind an rain and an “express highway” that, while in surprisingly good shape can have curves like Marilyn Monroe only more dangerous, and one can say it was an exciting trip.

Apart from the truly insane truck drivers, there was also a number of people parking their cars right in the middle of a blind spot after a curve, where there is no emergency lane or anything, so basically on the middle of the highway. Why? Well, because they were in the mood to get out of the car for a piss or maybe to take some pictures.

Anyways, we got to Pune at 11pm or so and checked into a little hotel with the obligatory Barista on the grounds, right next to the Osho Ashram. One of the first things I noticed in Pune was the number of hipsters walking around, sitting at Barista, and standing around in front of some modern movie theater/mall. The term hipster of course simply denotes college kids in jeans and t-shirt, as Pune is actually also known as the Oxford of India, due to the number of IT colleges and universities here, so don’t think East Village, as the dress code is rather unimaginative, and labels win over originality any time.

Now, we are anything but hippies, but the Osho Ashram promises to be a very quiet green space where one can relax and meditate. Osho, of course, is the guru that at some point got deported from the US for tax evasion, and whom Western tabloids used to refer to as the sex guru, because he had pretty liberal views on sex. But really, it is just big business, and a pretty weird place. I had somehow expected that we would only find Westerners there, but there were about 30% Indians as well.

The first thing that happens when one gets there is you need to pay Rs1200, fill out a bunch of forms, show your visa, have a picture taken, and get an HIV test done. No, you don’t see anybody having sex or anything, but basically, it’s part of the belief that sex is natural and shouldn’t be discouraged, and besides Osho apparently was pretty paranoid about hygiene, so there’s also big signs everywhere about how not to handle the food, where not to go if you have a cold, and where to wear socks instead of bare feet.

Then, during the day, everyone has to wear a maroon robe, no exceptions. In the evening, they have a huge two and a half hour evening meeting, where white robes are mandatory. At the swimming pool, maroon swim suits only. It’s all quite cultish and rather unenlightened, and of course they want you to buy these things on the premises for inflated prices. On the other hand, the pool is very nice, and they have a sauna and a tennis court (for extra cash). Oh, and taking pictures on the premises wasn’t allowed either.

We also went to a couple of meditation sessions, which are basically a mix of dance therapy and Osho philosophy brainwash. An interesting experience maybe, but why anyone would want to devote his or her life to this sort of thing is a bit beyond me. Add to that the obvious big business mentality – Osho’s Rolls Royce is exhibited right next to his ashes in the “Silent Meditation Area” – and one could easily get pissed off by all of it. Or one could travel thousands of miles from Europe or elsewhere, just to spend a few weeks here, as many people do.

The big evening meeting was in a gorgeous auditorium – a huge square space with a black marble floor and a huge triangular ceiling. Absolutely no coughing allowed for two and a half hours. There were 200 or 300 people there, and the thing starts with some music and “meditative” dancing, which in our case ended with some freak woman hysterically crying out for Krishna, untill she got escorted out. Maybe she was a real freak, or maybe the whole thing was staged, either by her or by the Osho Ashram head of marketing, who knows.

Then there is an hour long or so video of Osho giving a speech. I kind of fell asleep at some point, but basically he was saying that Western religions have been created by the poor and for the poor, with Jesus having been a carpenter and Islam promising 72 virgins after death, Christianity promising heavenly paradise, etc. while Indian religions were created by kings, who had everything materially, and desired nothing but solitude and nothingness. No wonder than that Indian religions have found such a large following among the spoiled and sated Western population, while Hinduism has nothing to offer for the poor in India, he said.

Well, I don’t know, it sounded like an odd mix of half-truths and bullshit, but it certainly seemed to show that Osho knew his target group and built a pretty successful marketing and product line around it, because Westerners are coming in droves. Besides, he probably had trouble getting laid, so what better idea to help him out on that account than coming up with a sexually liberal cult targeted at rich Westerners? I had thought this was a cliche, and maybe it is, but we definitely saw a number of single older Western ladies hanging around with young Indian boys.

In the immediate vicinity of the Osho Ashram is a “German Bakery”, which was crowded with Indians, hippies, and regular travellers, and, as Ksenia observed, the atmosphere was a pretty much like they took everything stereotypical Indian, digested it in California, and spat it back out here in Pune. Somewhat interesting, and somewhat revolting, just like the Osho Ashram itself, which would make a fine relaxed place to go to, as it is clean and green and has nice facilities, if it weren’t for the cultish freaks and the many strings firmly attached to visitors’ wallets.

Anyways, bottom line: I am still not enlightened, despite having walked around in a maroon robe all weekend, looking like I don’t know what.

The Flood Recap

So far, the monsoon season has been very nice and pleasant to us. Temperatures are in the high 20’s celsius, as opposed to mid or high 30’s, and although it is very humid, the air feels better and fresher than before the monsoon started. It rains every couple of days for a few hours, but that is that.

But then last Tuesday, all hell broke lose, and as our luck would have it, we had the pleasure to experience the heaviest rainfall in Mumbai’s history. As of today, over 450 people died in the State of Maharashtra, and about 60 in Mumbai. Some parts of Mumbai got 90cm of rainfall, that’s three feet.

The rain started sometime in the early afternoon, when I was at work and Ksenia at her yoga class. Around 5pm we were told we could leave the office early. I took off with Manish from work in his Tata Sierra, a fairly heavy SUV. The rain was absolutely incredible, stronger than anything I have ever seen. It soon became clear that it’ll take a while to get home. The traffic was crawling, but still moving, sort of. Eventually, cars started to use both lanes in both directions. Initially, the water on the streets was only a few inches, but soon it reached about half a foot, and in some spots a foot or more.

So by 7pm, we had gone through one particularly deep spot, we were maybe 3km away from the office and we were stuck. The water was too deep, and besides, people had started abandoning their cars in the middle of the streets. By now it was dark, and the traffic lights were out; there was no electricity anywhere. For some reason, I managed to call Ksenia on her mobile, and she said that she is walking home. Our car was flooded, she was knee deep in the water, and our driver was walking her home.

Luckily, Manish’s aunt lived nearby where we were stuck, so we turned around and managed to park the car in a better spot. But both of us wanted to get home, so we started walking. We were about 7km (5 miles) from home, and, well, it took us five hours. The water reached our hips very quickly, and in some spots our chests. Now, of course, I am using the term water quite liberally – think sewage. Luckily, it was dark, so we couldn’t really see what’s floating by, but it wasn’t pretty.

At one spot, the current was so strong that it kept pulling us back and I couldn’t get a firm hold with my feet. Of course, I was still wearing my office shoes and, actually, my best suit pants, not to mention my tie. Anyways, somehow we managed to get cross that particular spot and kept wading through the floods. There were abandoned flooded cars and city busses everywhere. People were resting in the busses or waiting for God knows what, plus there was a good amount of thunder an lightening, so the whole scene had a bit of an apocalyptic touch.

The street lights were out, but the lightening then and again made them go on, which didn’t really add to my general feeling of discomfort. Wading through hip deep sewage for a few kilometers is not exactly my idea of fun, especially when you know that it’s quite possible that you make a wrong step and get stuck in a pothole, or worse, end up in a manhole. The people around us seemed to have a blast though. First of all, they had no problems touching the traffic light posts, thunder and lightening or not. But apart from that, they were generally laughing, a few were singing to the rain God, Ganesh, and they were all holding hands to help each other through the sewage, so that was nice.

Some overdid the fun part a little, I guess: Ksenia told me later that where she was, there were rats swimming around all over the place, trying to huddle up on top of the gas tank of a motor bike, which was just above water level – and if that’s not enough, there were a bunch of teenage boys with sticks picking up the rats and throwing them towards the people passing by. Thankfully, no-one was hit, so the little pricks weren’t very good at it, and I didn’t see any of that – I just met a whole lot of people greeting me with “Hello foreigner, how do you like India?”

Eventually, Manish and I reached a higher spot in Juhu where there was no flooding, just by the JW Mariott Hotel, which was bizarrely lit up like a Christmas tree. I guess it pays to have your own generator. An hour or so later, I reached home. Our street also was not flooded, but I had to restrain myself not to strangle the woman who asked me, her cell phone in hand: “Excuse me, but why is there so much traffic on Linking Road?”

Poor Ksenia had gotten home quite a bit earlier, just to find our apartment flooded in two inch deep water. The drains on our terrace were clogged, so the water was overflowing into our apartment, despite all doors being shut. Of course, these drains are a joke to begin with – there’s only two of them, each maybe an inch and a half in diameter, and our terrace is pretty large. Needless to say, our upstairs neighbors throwing plastic bags and newspapers onto our terrace on a regular basis didn’t help.

So she and the driver spent hours getting rid of the water, and of course the driver had no place to go, so he slept in our second bedroom. Ksenia wouldn’t have found her way home without him, so we were very lucky to have him. On the plus side, Ksenia was able to take a few shots with her camera.

We had no electricity and eventually also no water, nevermind no landline phone, so the next day and night were a bit of a challenge. Electricity and water came back Thursday morning, but of course still no phone. One would think that the telephone is a fairly proven technology, but not around here. Strangely, mobile phone service was working for the most part, except for a relatively short disruption for a few hours and heavy congestion.

Also quite striking was the complete lack of any police, fire department, ambulance or any other kind of public service. Rail and airport service were of course completely shut down for almost 40 hours, but people were generally completely left to their own devices. One would think that in an area where heavy rains are an annual fact of life, there would maybe exist some kind of emergency plan, maybe even inflatable boats, but I guess not, which maybe isn’t surprising, given that the sewage system is such a joke, i.e. in large parts non-existent and otherwise completely useless.

So today everything is pretty much back to normal, except still no phone and conflicting reports on whether there’s any flights going out of Mumbai. Ksenia was supposed to leave for NYC tonight, so we will see. We are still planning to go to a dance performance in the evening, and her flight is scheduled for 2am. At least I have now found a Barista cafe with WiFi access and it actually works, with a good speed to boot. But Ksenia is taking her laptop with her, so my fun was limited to today. On the bright site, on TV they said that I can now worry a bit about getting leprotosis from the rat piss that no doubt was plenty in the sewage that I had been walking around in – yummy!

Moving Day

So our move sort of went smoothly. Deepak, our driver, had his day off, the first in four weeks. I am not sure how that works, really, but we had a different driver on the day of the move. Ksenia pretty quickly stated the obvious: “I don’t think he knows how to drive”. Well, he really didn’t. He had no clue where he was going, when to stop at the green light, or when to go at the red light, and, best of all, he spent more time honking than I would have ever thought possible. Deepak honks the horn quite often as well, but at least one can sort of see the reasoning. This guy seemed to use the horn for no reason whatsoever. I guess it’s true, as it says on the back of every truck in this country, and I am not making this up: “Horn OK Please”. Well, sometimes it says “Horn OK Pliese”.

Anyways, we ended up being half an hour late for the handover of the apartment, but it was OK. I had not noticed when I had looked at the apartment, but of course, Ksenia noticed right away: Whenever the elevator door is open, it plays an atrocious midi melody, kind of like an ice cream truck in NYC. But that was not enough. The kitchen has a water filter that also plays music. The filter is some mysterious contraption with an electric switch, and whenever it’s ready for use, and in fact for the whole time thereafter, it plays an even more annoying midi melody. Maybe it’s designed to help scare off the germs in the water, but in any event that’s what we have in our kitchen.

The next thing we notice, because the owner of the apartment gives us a tour of it, is that this 2 bedroom apartment must have about 70 light and other switches. It seems like each individual light bulb and electric outlet has its own dedicated switch, and none of the rooms has one main light, but instead a whole assortment of light sources that one can switch on or off in endless variations. Of course, since none of the light bulbs appears to be more than 10W, it’s nevertheless a little dark, or maybe let’s say there is always a nice ambience. Anyways, the sheer number of light switches is dizzying. We had wondered about the TV commercials for Euroswitches, which we had seen a few times, but whatever those really are, people seem to have a real love for light switches here.

Unfortunately, Ksenia also developed a serious case of toothache, so we took the opportunity to ask the apartment owner about a good dentist. Back in the hotel, where we picked up our second load of luggage, we also asked the front desk, but when we called the dentist they recommended, we were told that he was already gone for the day. That was at 11:00am. The apartment owner’s dentist seemed to be a better bet. He also had already gone, but he’d be back at 4:30pm, and so we went there in the afternoon. We had the dental office give our driver directions over the phone, but he still had to ask two people on the street and call the dental office back some more. Maybe we aren’t the only ones who can’t make much sense of addresses in this town. The dental office, proudly going by the name “Only Smiles”, turned out to be a good find. There was hardly a wait, the prescribed anti-biotica were $1.20, and the x-rays were done the next day. Unfortunately, Ksenia needs a root-canal, so that’s not so great, but she’s scheduled for next week, and on the plus side, we no longer have the shits. We both had a mild to not so mild case of the shits, but that’s over for now.

Before we went to the dentist, we spent the afternoon hunting for kitchen and cleaning supplies. But first we had yet another fantastic meal at a restaurant. The waiter recommended to go to KNB or to Shopper’s Shop for kitchen and cleaning supplies. He must have been confused, because both places featured women’s dresses and a very small selection of tea pots and such. Shopper’s Shop is kind of a mall and not exactly what we needed. When we asked a sales woman there about kitchen and cleaning supplies, like mops and spunges etc., she tried to steer us to her water boilers, apologized for not having any mops for sale and recommended another store around the corner. Now, that store was a little closer to what we needed, at least they sold ashtrays, right next to the women’s dresses and men’s shoes. So we bought an ashtray (with the usual ceremony of one guy selling, one guy wrapping, one guy taking the money, and a fourth guy handing over the ashtray), and walked out of there. Luckily, Ksenia then remembered a store somewhere near a Barista (the Indian Starbucks), which should have everything we wanted, so after a few futile inquiries about the
location of that Barista, we eventually found it. And, indeed, Rs2,200 later we were loaded up on spunges, a mop, toilet paper, and mosquito repellent – just the sort of stuff one needs to get started. Interestingly, toilet paper really does seem like a luxury item here. At $5 for six measly rolls, I was tempted to look for the golden prints and silk embroidery, but they were just plain white and expensive.

Our moving day ended with the discovery of a very cute pink Lizard in the living room, and of a less cute but thumb-sized cockroach in the kitchen. There wasn’t much in terms of pots or pans or anything in the apartment, but a big can of anti-cockroach spray there was, and it came very handy. Ksenia went after it with full gusto, and that was the end of it. Our pots and pans etc. arrived the next day, yesterday. Ksenia is still in pain with her teeth, and we have interviewed a maid. Tomorrow, we’ll go to a dance festival and continue the car buying saga. We still need to get DSL, but at least there is something called instant internet here. It’s dead slow, but works from any phone line on demand, so I am writing this via e-mail from Ksenia’s G4, since I haven’t set up my computer yet either. The weather is quite nice these days, and Ksenia sways back and forth from “If it weren’t for the food, I’d hate this country” to being quite taken with the various fabrics she has found, as well as with her Indian dance and the yoga classes she is taking. So, all in all, we are already on our way to a normal life. And, still, I can’t wait to get a car, so we can get out of town, for a totally different India altogether, I am sure.

More Car Shopping

The car shopping saga continues. We started our day by driving around for over an hour trying to find the location of a 12 hour dance festival that was posted in TimeOut Mumbai. The listing had an address and a phone number, and the map promised a vague idea of where the venue might be. Well, either the map or the listing were wrong, most likely both. Even our driver laughed about it, he said the address doesn’t make any sense, because it mentioned both Andheri and Oshiwara, which are quite far apart from each other. Of course, calling the phone number was equally useless, because no-one picked up, and not even the driver was able to understand the brief message one would hear upon calling the number.

So that was that. Next stop was a Bajaj/Tempo showroom in the Eastern outskirts of Mumbai, in Bhandup. Their sales guy had actually visited me in my hotel two weeks ago, to show me some brochures that were trying to be glossy. Back then, he said no problem, I can show you car Wednesday. He never called again. I called him last weekend, he said definitely, I can show car tomorrow. That didn’t happen either. I called him again last Wednesday, he said Saturday, no problem, we have car in showroom. Ok, so we drive to Bhandup from the westside of the suburbs, and it turned out to be a fairly nice drive through the Sanjay Ghandi National Park, a real park with lots of birds, and trees and flowers, and, yes, real tigers. Because residential areas are shooting up everywhere around the park, it happens then and again that some little kids get in too close, and unpleasant, contact with the tigers.

Anyways, the park looks nice, it has two lakes, and we’ll definitely come back here sometime. When we finally find the Bajaj/Tempo, there’s a lot of commotion, we get tea and water and coffee offered, and the sales guy greets us very excitedly. But, of course, he has no car to show. He has a number of autorikshaws standing around, and the Tempo Traveller that he tried to interest me in, but that’s a 15 or 20 seat bus. So now he says maybe Tuesday or Wednesday he can show me the car I was interested in, if not, he says, maybe I should go and buy a Mahindra, i.e. the competition. The Mahindra Scorpio appears to be the strongest Indian SUV in town, but at $19,000 or so, it’s more than I want to spend, and I really don’t need an SUV with 110 or so hp; I’d like a simple one that’s safe in a potential crash, gets over the incredible potholes, lets us go into the rural areas on weekends, and can easily get repaired at every corner.

After that, we needed some lunch. We go to a place nearby, where we were immediately sent into the airconditioned room on the upper floor. That A/C is a bit too cold, so we go back to where we came from, and started ordering from the sticky menu. The whole place is staring at us, especially Ksenia, who generally gets stared at wherever she goes, it is sometimes getting a bit annoying. But the food is great, the chai is good, and we manage not to use our left hands. Behind us are two utterly drunk guys in their late teens, who eventually stumble out of the place. To our side is a few teenage boys shoveling in the food like it’s going out of fashion. We are the only ones with a fork and spoon. The boys constantly look over to us and hardly even pretend they aren’t looking.

Next stop is Chembur, back towards home. Rumor has it that there’s a Tata showroom that actually has cars to show and that would accept credit cards for the initial deposit. When we get there, they do indeed have the Tata Sumo that I had in mind. It comes without any bells and whistles, but has an A/C, even in the base version. One version up has power steering. The top model also has central locking and electric windows, neither of which we need. At around $14,000 it’s not exactly cheap in my book (who has never owned a car in his life), but it’ll do. So then the commotions and negotiations begin. They didn’t like my Indian government issued Foreigners Regional Registration Office ID. They had probably never seen one of those. They said it’s only valid for a year, normally they’d require a passport, which would be valid for 15 years or so. We said, we are very sorry, but we will probably not stay for 15 years, and this is an official document, with an official stamp, issued by the Indian government. It even has our address in there. Unfortunately, it’s the address of our hotel. Don’t we have a phone bill, they ask. I wonder out loud how a phonebill could be more official that this Indian government issued document with my address and a bunch of stamps in it.

So, eventually, they give up. Ok, so what’s next? They’d like a Rs100,000 deposit, and yes, they take credit cards for that. No problem. Well, I guess I should have known, but of course neither the American Express card, nor a regular Visa card is accepted. Indian bank issued Visa/MC cards only. So, after some back and forth, it turns out they will accept Rs15,000 in cash for now, and with that, they will get the car from the factory. Then, next week, I need to come back with the remaining Rs85,000 to give them the balance of the Rs100,000 deposit. Preferably as a DD, i.e. a certified check. Ok, from taht point on, it’ll be another 10-12 business days to have them get the car registered. Finally, the car would be ready for me to pick up, if and when we pay the remaining balance of the Rs600,000 total. Needless to say, the last points took us over an hour to negotiate. The sales guy kept changing his story about what money is due when and for what item of the list of things that need to be done to have the car and keys in your hand. He kept going back to saying Sir, can you give me six lakhs now, by check (six lakhs = Rs600,000)? I kept saying, no I can’t, besides, I won’t give you the full amount untill I have the keys to the car in my hand.

So this went back and forth for a while, the General Manager of the place got involved (or, rather, we were summoned to his office), who tried to tell me that he’s taking a big risk by letting me not give him the full amount now. As he was sort of insinuating that I should be very thankful for his service, he kept saying You know, Sir, I take one lakh now, but then you might change your mind and not want the car. I guess the logic escaped me and I tried asking him, wouldn’t it be rather stupid of me to hand you one lakh ($2300), and then change my mind? So then he tried to explain to me the ways of doing business in India (well, in India, you see, Sir, we have certain rules and regulations…), and at that point I slowly started to sense that he was beginning to feel insulted by my arguing with him (after all, he was probably twice my age), so I left it at that. I think we have a deal, I guess we’ll see next weekend, when I hand them the rest of the deposit.

Saturday in Mumbai

Things are looking better. Of course, traffic is still an amazingly huge madness, and the two sports channels on television don’t seem to tire of showing World Wide Wrestling or replays of last weeks Cricket, nor do the other channels seem to have anything better to offer than atrociously bad soap operas or American Idol style crap, but today was a good day nevertheless. We managed to find a very interesting store full of fantastic Indian designer clothes; we found a bunch of art galleries with a mixed bag of paintings and sculptures, some of them very nice; we had incredibly good dinner at some vegetarian place (at less than $2 for the two of us), and I got myself a long overdue haircut that wasn’t any worse than anywhere else, except at a tenth of NYC prices. Well, ok, it was a little worse than usual. We also ordered two tailored shirts, and if they turn out well, I’ll get some tailored suits. The choices and prices of fabrics are simply amazing and even though Ksenia insists that the fabrics aren’t quite Italian quality, the tailors definitely seem to know what they are doing.

Ksenia definitely likes it here. Well, she keeps saying “Incredible India” is definitely the right choice of words. She already seems to have made up a long list of fabric and design stores that she wants to check out. We haven’t even been to any museums yet, let alone ventured outside of the city, but next week there will be two fairly big dance festivals to go to, so we definitely won’t be bored. The music scene seems to be very small, there’s only about ten listings in all of TimeOut Mumbai (which covers two weeks) and five or seven of them appear to be Karaoke – not exactly our idea of live music. Also, clubs apparently close at 12:30am, unless they are in a hotel, in which case they close at 3am, but we really have no desire whatsoever to go to hotel bars or clubs. Lounge bars are also not really our thing, but Mumbai seems to have a lot of them, although they are not easy to find.

The other day, Ksenia ran into some Indian girls. One of them was an English teacher who told her that for a wife to call her husband by his first name would be rude; it should be the first name plus jaar or jah or something like that, i.e. the polite form. Ah well. In other news, a woman who got raped by her father-in-law got condemed by a fatwa to live separate from her husband, since her rapist would now be considered her husband, which would make her real husband her son. Also, a young couple that, elsewhere, dared to elope got condemend by their village to leave town. I guess the fact that these things are actually reported in the newspaper would mean that they are newsworthy and unusual or controversial, and in fact there is an organization of muslim women that very strongly condemned the fatwa as a gross misinterpretation of the Koran.

Still, the English teacher will have an arranged marriage and insists that every one of her friends that had an arranged marriage is very happy. The idea is that your parents would have only your best interests in mind and that they would pick someone with your culture, background, and caste. And maybe that’s great, after all, people do want to marry someone that they have things in common with, but to have someone else, your parents, look for the commonalities and to have these commonalities be so narrowly defined by caste or clan or village seems rather … well, a little difficult to comprehend, and to see the same girl be on a shopping spree at The Mall and running around in blue jeans listening to Indian hip-hop on her IPod, doesn’t exactly make it easier.