The Maid

In NYC, we used to have a cleaning woman, who’d come in every two weeks and clean everything in three hours. She is from Chile and does a great job. Now, having a cleaning woman in NYC was strange enough for me, at least at the beginning. It’s not like I grew up on Beverly Hills or Windsor Castle, quite the contrary. But living in Mumbai, it is pretty clear pretty quickly that spoiled Westerners that we are, we need a maid on a daily basis, at least part time. First of all, this place is dirty and our apartment would get covered in dust very very quickly. Also, we have no idea what to buy in terms of groceries etc., where to buy it, and what it should cost. And even if we did, we’d have a hell of a time communicating with the shop owners. So we were recommended a maid and hired her.

She came with a number of references and spoke English quite well. She said she would clean, do the shopping (or rather order the stuff for delivery, since everything can get delivered), do the laundry and cook a couple of times a week. Unfortunately, we were not prepared for the fact that having a maid is basically a full-time job. We were naively thinking that you could just have her come in, and she would know what to do without much prompting. Instead, Ksenia tried for a week to show her how to clean, to convince her to do the shopping, but basically nothing got done.

Other people confirmed then confirmed that getting a good maid is very very difficult, and that one basically needs to spend a few months explaining to them exactly what they need to do. Our maid basically refused to do the shopping, because she said there are no shops around (there are, besides, then she made a big long face when Ksenia asked her to call somebody for delivery). After a week of her cleaning our living room, our telephone was still covered in dust, because she didn’t know that we wanted her to clean the telephone, too.

We still don’t really have any idea about how this works, but we sort of thought that if our cleaning woman in NYC can figure out without being told that dusting the living room includes the telephone, then it should not be too much of a problem here. Well, apparently it was, plus at the end of the week we think that we are missing a number of Rs500 bills from a locked drawer, and although we cannot be 100% certain what happened to it, we figured it would be better to let her go.

Our landlord told us that you basically cannot trust any maid and that they will all rob you and need very strict supervision. Another expat told us that in her Indian friend’s family, the maid is basically locked up in the kitchen, where she sleeps on the floor. So what do you do? We obviously want to treat our maid like responsible adults, but it turns out that this may be easier said than done.

Anyways, so we have now hired a different maid, who was also recommended to us with all sorts of references. Her English is not quite as good, but so far, she’s quite a bit more thorough. She was cooking a tasty chicken dish today, and while she didn’t do the vegetable dish that she said she would do, nor cleaned the kitchen cabinets that she said she would clean, she did call the grocery to get the chicken and vegetables delivered.

Speaking of which: at this point, we have slowly lost any concept of believing what anyone says. The cable guy said he would stop by in the afternoon to get us digital cable; he never did. The dry cleaner said he would stop by in half an hour to pick up some shirts; he never did. The furniture shop said they would come at 2pm to deliver the furniture; they never did. We then drove to the shop ourselves, and then the story was that the furniture was actually made in a different store outside of town and that it can’t get delivered until Tuesday because of the floods. The travel desk at work told me they’d come by in 10 minutes to give me Ksenia’s tickets to NYC; they never did. When I went there myself, it turned out that the tickets were double booked and that the real ticket will be an electronic ticket. I guess we have yet to learn how to get this sort of information on the phone, without actually having to show up in person. There’s countless stories like this, and maybe even more so than the heat and the rain and the traffic and the pollution, it makes India quite an exhausting place to live.

In any event, I guess it’ll be interesting how things will go once Ksenia is off to NYC for two months, and I will only have half an hour or so in the morning to tell the maid what to do. I think I might be bitching about my maid and become a Desperate Housewife myself. Of course, Ksenia thinks I will spoil her and let her get away with doing nothing, and then she will have to fire her, when she gets back, because her tolerance for questionable work ethics is a bit lower than mine, but we’ll see. I am already calling Ksenia My Good Colonialist, but really, we have no idea what people were talking about when Indians in the US say: “Oh, you are going to India on US salary – you are going to live like a King, you’ll have a maid and a driver, and everything is going to get delivered!” Yeah, right, but I’ll have to quit my job first, so I have time to manage my maid and my driver.

Shopping for Furniture and DSL

Our apartment has nice modern furniture and a big terrace with a little roof to sit under in the rain, but no terrace furniture. But what better place than India to buy this sort of stuff? Mumbai is full of little woodcarving furniture shops, mostly owned by Muslims. There are also many shops that make furniture from bamboo cane, but the woodcarving stuff is really quite something. So last weekend we went from one to the next, trying to figure out the different types and prices. We are probably deluding ourselves, but we start thinking that we are getting a better idea about whether people are giving us a totally inflated tourist price or only a medium inflated price. But basically, we kind of go by what we like and, almost equally important, which of the sales guys we like. Eventually, we end up at one shop where the people are very relaxed and laid back and seem to have prices that are not obviously completely out of line.

Of course, even the outrageous quotes are probably a quarter or less of what this stuff would be anywhere in the West, but we don’t really want to be taken for complete idiots either, and I am slowly beginning to take a liking in the bargaining and haggling game. Anyways, so we get a bunch of lounge type chairs and small tables, with carvings to Ksenia’s specification, made of rosewood and with some inlays on the table tops. They supposedly will get made to order in 10 days. The people were really quite nice. We went back there three or four times, were forced to have a cold Pepsi, and apparently were a bit of a sensation in that neighborhood. We also got a rocking chair, at some other place, which just got delivered.

Also last weekend, we went out for drinks and dinner with another expat from work and some expat friends of his. Before we came here, we didn’t really think about whether we’d make Indian friends or hang out with expats, but I guess we also have reached a point where we realize it’s nice to have a bitch and moan and vent session with expats then and again, where you can just sit down and commiserate about the general insanity and craziness of this country. Indians might get defensive or offended by this sort of stuff, just like I have been asked on more than one occasion why the fuck I came to the US, if I have to bitch about this or that, so when Indians asks me how I like India, which they do very often, I don’t particularly feel, tempting as it might be, to say exactly all the things that might be on my mind. It would take too much time anyways.

Apart from yet another elephant that we saw walking down the street today (with the guy riding it asking for money, of course), we also saw a Hindustan Motors Ambassador Avigo. Now, we had already given Rs15,000 to the Tata showroom to book a Tata Sumo, and we even had already a certified check for another Rs85,000 in our hands, ready to be turned over to Tata, but when I saw that HM Ambassador Avigo, I just couldn’t help it and completely changed my mind. This car is an absolute beauty. I don’t care what Indians tell me, which is usually that it’s a shit piece of junk and that I should buy a Mahindra Scorpio or some such US style SUV, I think this car is absolutely gorgeous. I admit, the regular HM Ambassador Grand leaves a bit to be desired in terms of interior styling, but the Avigo looks great, is cheap for a car its size, and is made for Indian roads. So I reversed my Tata Sumo booking and ordered an HM Amby Avigo.

The only downside is that it’ll probably take four or five weeks, and that the paperwork is not any less than for any other car. Apart from a copy of my passport, my permanent residency permit, my landlord’s phone bill, they also want the original copy of my apartment lease agreement, and a letter from my employer on company letterhead, which confirms my status and confirms that I moved from the hotel to an apartment and basically begs the vehicle registration office to please register my car, Yours Faithfully etc. blah blah… Apparently, at least that was the HM car dealer’s explanation, the vehicle registration office has a real problem with people faking their proof of residence documents, which, given the amount of paperwork these bureaucrats require doesn’t really surprise me, especially since the permanent residence permit, for example, is basically printed on toilet paper, so easy to fake that my grandmother could do it, and she is dead.

At least when you go to the post and telegraph office, which we did to order a DSL broadband connection, you know to expect the worst, and our expectations were sort of satisfied. The PTO is now actually run by a semi-government entity called MTNL, and when you go there, it is a bit like entering the twighlight zone. The MTNL workers, many of them, none with much of anything to do, sit behind large schoolroom desks of plastic wood veneer, hand you an application form that we had to have our landlord signed, since our phone line is on his name. Fair enough. When we get back, they read the form very carefully, slam three official stamps on it with full gusto, rip off a little bit off it at the bottom and say “OK, two to four days”. We couldn’t quite believe what we heard, so then they clarified that in two to four days they will forward the application. “And then what?” our inquiring minds wanted to know. Then they clarified that the service guy will come to our apartment. But nobody knew what day exactly, let alone what time.

So when we argued that we’d like to know the day and, if possible, have a rough idea about the time, they said “I don’t know”. Well, honesty is always a good policy. But when we asked, what if we are not home, the woman taking our application gave a fantastic shy smile and just said “Oh.” I am not sure exactly what that meant, but I can only assume that she assumed that we have a maid (which we now do, but only part-time). Or is it really possible that it never occurred to her that people might not be home?

Anyways, so she sent us to the second floor to talk to the field manager, I guess. The building is old, smelly, and from the looks on people’s faces, no Westerner has ever set foot into the place, at least not onto the second floor. There’s huge metal drawers on the walls, ca. 1930. The field manager now says one week. Then we kind of lie and say that downstairs they said two to three days. The brief answer: “No, impossible!” But then, I don’t know what happened, her colleague started wiggling his head, and all of a sudden it was no problem and he promises Thursday, in three days. Exact time? “After 12.” Well, looks like we are starting to figure stuff out here, so we are already very happy. For now. Who knows what will happen Thursday, but the poster of Mahatma Gandhi on the field office was promising. It had his portrait and underneath, the following, paraphrased from memory:

The customer is not an interruption of your work; he is your reason for being.
The customer should not be thankful that you serve him; you should be thankful for getting to serve him.

It went on a bit more in that vein, and I don’t remember the exact words, but seeing this faded black and white poster in this five by five feet field office was truly worth getting the visitor’s pass that we needed to go to the second floor. About as worthwhile as the hand-painted sign above the elevator: “This lift is not available for going down.”

One thing we haven’t quite figured out yet are our 70 or so switches. The other day, I accidentally switched off the power plug for the fridge and didn’t notice for a good while, and we also had somehow managed to switch off the door bell, so the poor woman that came for an interview as a maid was waiting outside for half an hour, because we also didn’t hear her knocking, as we were in the kitchen, and the ventilator, stove exhaust, and washing machine combined are a bit too noisy to hear much of anything. Not to mention our melodic water filter. The electrical outlets are also a bit of a challenge. They come in two different shapes, but each seems to be able to actually fit a variety of plug types, except of course our US types, and in any event, a few of our appliances require 120V, not the standard 220V in use in India (give or take 20V I guess, with the power supply being said to be a bit shaky here). I never understood the US system either, where it seems to be preferred to have poster size warning labels on every goddamned power cable, as opposed to manufacturing plugs that are actually safe and don’t bend like straws at the slightest touch, but I guess that’s where the German in me comes out, because there’s something to be said for proper DIN norms.

Anyways, we had to make two trips to an electrical supplies shop, and the 13 year old kid there was fantastic. He seemed to know everything and anything about electrical supplies, Watts and Volts and amperes, and whipped out his calculator to figure out the power needs of all sorts of things. Try that at Radio Shack and you’ll risk an unexpected death. Anyways, we hooked up our PC, and are now DSL ready, the MTNL and Gandhi willing.

Things I Have Learned So Far

I can go the same distance, say an hour (i.e. 5 miles in this traffic), in a hotel cab for 2000Rs, or in an auto riksha for 100Rs (43Rs are 1$, so do the math). The hotel cab is nicer, but not 20 times as nice or fast as the rikshaw. In fact, the rikshaw is kind of more fun, and it might even run on compressed natural gas, like most of them do now. That’s definitely a plus over the Toyota Camrys that the hotel has.

Yes, definitely may very well mean no, never. I heard that yes, definitely a couple of times now, either when calling a car showroom about whether I can see or maybe even test drive a car, or when calling the hotel reception to see whether there’s a place anywhere in town where I could see a Federations Cup game (football, or soccer, for some people). In both cases, I was told that they’d call me back with an answer very very shortly, but that never happened.

The Indian head wiggle can mean yes, no, or maybe. It looks a bit like a regular head shaking, but it it comes with a slight rotating motion, which can look quite elegant and artistic, actually. In any event, it’s fascinating, but I am usually not sure what it means. I think in most cases, it means yes. Now, whether that yes actually then turns out to mean no, or maybe, or I don’t know, or why don’t you just go fuck yourself, is a different matter.

It’s a bad idea to ask a woman for directions. The first time I did, it was a young student in jeans and t-shirt and she looked at me like I was the dirtiest old bastard she’s ever met. Ooops. The second time, I had forgotten about the fist time, and this time, also someone dressed in jeans and shirt, a little older, she just walked away. Hm, maybe I really should work on my German accent, but I think I better just ask men.

There’s McDonald’s, Subway, Domino’s Pizza, Pizza Hut, and all kinds of other American atrocities one can consume here. US-style SUVs get high praise, US import cars even higher praise (despite an import tax/duty of over 100%). The celebrity pages in the Times Of India (there’s about four of these pages every day) are full of color pictures of Bollywood celebrities’ parties and breakups, and a dizzying array of relationship, shopping, and make-up advice. A whole lot of them sport the usual US casual wear, there’s t-shirts with the Stars and Stripes, sunglasses (of course, they are called shades) here, I think Miami Vice must be still a hit. There’s definitely CNN, CNBC, CNBC in Hindi, the Hallmark channel, and Friends on television. At least there’s also BBC World News, but other than that, the US has clearly taken over from the Brits.

Nevertheless, the Times of India is now the largest English language newspaper in the world, with a circulation greater than that of USA Today or the WSJ. Obviously, the customer base for these products is the rapidly growing Indian middle class. Apparently, just as it is considered absolutely cool in Russia to go out and be seen at McDonald’s, the biggest attraction and the thing to do for fun around here, seems to be to go to the mall. Crawford Market is out, The Mall is in. So here I am in India, determined to find the places that are modern and accessible, yet original and Indian. Well, not really all that determined. I am pretty sure Ksenia will find those very cool and original, very modern, yet very Indian stores and venues and restaurants, so I might leave that up to her.

One thing I haven’t learned is a single Word of Hindi. That will have to change. Rumor has it that one can get by with just English in India and while that’s true, it’s only about as true as it is for say France or Italy. A lot of people don’t speak or understand a word of it. A lot of people do speak English, but with an accent so strong that I have never any idea whether they are speaking English or Hindi right now. I read in the paper that in some province somewhere, people (or some political party) demanded that the teaching of English in school be banned. It’s quite possible to find a restaurant with an English menu but noone speaks English. While trying to get a mobile phone subscription (as opposed to prepaid), I had to deal with a whole number of people from AirTel calling me and we could simply not communicate whatsoever. My driver speaks a little English, but it would be absolutely hopeless trying to explain to him, for example, that I am not sure yet when I’d like him to pick me up the next day and that maybe I could just call him an hour so in advance when I do know. So I always ask him to pick me up at a certain time, and I usually end up having to let him wait forever. Anyways, so the point is, just as much as speaking English is an absolute must for anyone growing up in India who would like to jump onto the middle-class bandwagon, learning a bit of Hindi will be an absolute must for me and Ksenia to get around a bit easier and to see and experience a few things outside of The Mall.