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Wednesday, December 12, 2007

India From North to South (Kolkata & Goa): Cheats & Liars, The Virgin, Sex & Other Tales of India

India From North to South (Kolkata & Goa): Cheats & Liars, The Virgin, Sex & Other Tales of India

 

From the northeastern states of Assam and Nagaland where I experienced the hospitality of friendly and honest locals, I went on to Kolkata, Goa and am now in Kerala State, almost at the southern tip of India.  In flying to Kolkata from Nagaland, I also returned to the real India that many travelers detest – one crowded with cheats, liars, touts and people I would call desperate tip-seekers i.e., those who do nothing and yet aggressively seek tips.  Most Indians are warm, friendly and sincere, but the antics of those who harass tourists and make their journey unpleasant are giving India a bad name.  And I have encountered a lot of that in North India than South India.

 

The first encounter at Kolkata airport was an embodiment of most of the negative qualities tourists to India detest.  Upon arrival at Kolkata airport, I went to the prepaid taxi counter where I paid a fixed amount for a taxi together with a receipt which had the taxi number.   As I pushed my luggage trolley out of the terminal building, a young man appeared, put his hands on my trolley handle and asked, "prepaid taxi?" I replied, "yes, are you number 8907."

 

"OK, 8907," he said, and then started pushing my trolley. "Are you taxi 8907," I asked again. He didn't reply, but his hands stayed on my trolley and he walked with me as I pushed the trolley towards the taxi queue. It was obvious he wasn't the taxi driver and he had no clue where the taxi was.  I ignored him and continued looking for the right taxi. 

 

I found the battered dirty-white old machine that was 8907, and then started loading my luggage into the boot. The young man – call him Desperate Tip Seeker 1 – tried to help me load my luggage but I did not allow him. Once I have loaded all my luggage, I got into the taxi and was ready to go.  Desperate Tip Seeker 1 stretched his palm through the window, "Tip, sir. Pushed the bags for you and helped to find taxi."

 

"Hey, I pushed my own bags and found the taxi myself." I argued but thrust 5 rupees (about 13 US cents) into his palms anyway. 

 

"Sir, only 5 rupees?  So little. I helped you. Give me 50 rupees"

 

Ridiculous, Asking for over one US dollar for having done nothing. "Let's go," I told the driver, and off we went.

 

That was not all. 8907, or rather its driver, a tall man with high forehead, flabby contorted face and a weird mustache like that of a typical Bollywood villain, was worse.  Let's call him Desperate Tip Seeker 2.  As we drove out of the airport, Desperate Tip Seeker 2 suddenly said he didn't know how to get to Broadway Hotel, whereas moments ago he said he knew. "It's on Ganesh Chandra Avenue and next to Chandi Chowk Metro," I said, mentioning two major downtown localities that most Kolkatans would and all Kolkata taxi drivers should know. 

 

Yet Desperate Tip Seeker 2, in his course voice, claimed ignorance, and then asked, "You have booking at hotel? I can bring you to better place." Obviously he would bring me to some overpriced place where he would collect a commission and also demand a higher taxi fare from me on the basis that he had travelled a longer way than what I had prepaid for.  "Yes, I have booking. Please go there immediately," I insisted.

 

Desperate Tip Seeker 2 then mumbled to himself in Bengali, and said, "I don't know how to get to your hotel. Give me your mobile. What is hotel number? I will ring them."  I know this common trick too.  He would pretend to ring the hotel up and then claim that the hotel has burned down or has suddenly shut down for some other reason, so that I could be diverted elsewhere he could profit from. 

 

"No mobile. Please go to Hotel Broadway immediately." I said impatiently.

 

Seeing he was going nowhere in his devious schemes, Desperate Tip Seeker 2 seemed angry, and muttered to himself in Bengali again.  Then he said in English, "How much tip would you give me? Pay me. Tell me."

 

This was getting ridiculous. I was barely 15 minutes in the taxi, on what was supposed to be a 45 minutes ride to the city centre, and the taxi driver had asked for tips. Desperate Tip Seeker 2 had probably given up trying to make more money than the fixed sum I paid in the airport, and has now decided to demand directly for the obvious.

 

What would be the right tip? If I had offered an amount, he would almost certainly claim it was too low, and I would get into an even nastier argument with him. Would he do something nasty if I rejected his demand? Not likely perhaps, since the prepaid taxi booth would have his record and my name as well – I now knew why they asked for my name at the booth. I had to make a stand and not allow such cheats to get what they wanted. So I repeated sternly, "Go to Hotel Broadway now!"

 

And thank goodness, we reached Hotel Broadway safely with not a further word from him. 

 

Most people who have travelled around Third World countries have encountered numerous varieties of such tip seekers, cheats and touts. A seasoned traveler could probably recognize them right away and simply ignore them.  However, they remain major irritants and prevent one from feeling relaxed, as one has to be on the guard all the time. 

 

India is full of such hassle, perhaps to an extent equivalent to Egypt and Morocco.  Everyday, I deal with touts who would stalk me for 300 meters just because they thought I had an extra glance at what they were selling, or taxis that ask if I wanted a ride every 50 meters on a city street.  Fake sadhus (holy men) are another hassle.  They are everywhere begging for money, sometimes almost demanding for alms, creating a bad name for Hinduism. Or people who shouted loudly when they saw me, "China-walla" or "Japanese", as though they were calling their dogs or pointing out animals in the zoo. Do they do that to white men?

 

And those who lie in order to seek commission.  Prakesh, my first driver, who denied the existence of shopping malls in Delhi so that I would not shop in places he couldn't get commission from.  Yes, worse was Dinesh, my driver for 2 weeks in Rajasthan who claimed that I should not go to the malls at the upmarket Rajouri Garden area because there were too many "Muslim terrorists"; chided me for buying too much things on my own thus over-paying without his due advice (unfortunately for him, I wasn't born three days ago to believe his words); who also asked me non-stop how much I would tip him my last 2 days with him, even before we completed the journey.

 

And every man, his neighbour and the neighbour's dog that would hang around asking for tips for doing very little or nothing, like Desperate Tip Seeker 1.  Or worse, they devise contorted schemes to con and bluff their way, like Desperate Tip Seeker 2 or the many Delhi travel agencies that proclaimed themselves to be "Tourist Information Centres".  Even the night watch man of Hotel Broadway asked me for tips when I departed from the hotel in a taxi one day later. I did not even know who he was and the hotel bell boy accompanying me told me so, to my great amusement. (One reason why I had found Assam and Nagaland so refreshing was that I did not get harassed in these regions, either because of the different cultural values or they hadn't been spoilt by mass tourism yet.) 

 

India, New India, something needs to be done.  Citizens of an emerging superpower should not behave like that.  I am also getting tired of a painful bargaining process with Indian taxi drivers or tuk tuk men on every single occasion. Even China (where I used to travel to every month for work) which has its own share of dodgy businessmen and cheats, and over-pricing of tourists, has taxi meters and equal prices for entry to tourist attractions by nationals or foreigners.  And people in China hardly ask for tips, or even hang around hoping for tips, despite the low wages.

 

Remember my taxi test for countries? There are two types of countries: One, countries that have metered pricing for taxis and where taxis do stick to the use of meters for foreigners even in unusually bad traffic congestion; and two, countries that have neither meters, nor desire to stick to meters even if meters exist.

 

Category one countries tend to be rich developed countries or developing countries whose people have the necessary software to transform into developed country status. The people of such countries have realized that you need to treat everyone including foreigners fairly, and one need to stick with rules and contractual obligations even if circumstances become unfavourable.  Among developing countries or emerging economies, China and Thailand pass the taxi test and are definitely in this category.  Dubai and Sharjah (and perhaps Abu Dhabi but I hadn't taken taxis there) in the UAE are category one states too whereas the smaller emirates in UAE belong to category two.

 

Once in a while, the system fails in category one countries, as in the case of limousine taxi drivers in Singapore recently.  But a vigilant government would quickly react to right the situation once complaints of unfair practices emerged, as in Singapore.

 

Most developing countries and ex-communist countries are category two countries.  I have not gone to Russia in recent years, but in 2002, they did not even have official taxis. Malaysian taxis have meters but refuse to use them every time I am there.  For all its impressive infrastructure and skyscrapers, Malaysia has not passed the taxi test.  Having rules or the willingness to stick by rules are basic tests of whether the country has the software to do business in an honourable manner. Countries that do are trusted by others, which would encourage repeated business and further development.

 

Just my 2 cents worth on development theories.

 

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Kolkata, Calcutta as it was formerly known as, is the City of Joy in Dominique Lapierre's famous book and later subject of a movie of the same name.  Pathetically poor many of its inhabitants might be, the city is sometimes admired simply because its citizens appear happy in spite of it all.  With over 14 million people, this is among India's top 3 cities, and regarded as India's cultural capital, for Tagore and many renowned people of arts have lived there.

 

To me, however, Kolkata is a huge dump, one of the worse messes any government can do to a city.  As Kolkata was once capital of British India and the second most important city in the British Empire after London, The British built monumental buildings and government offices in this city.  After decades of governance by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI (M)), this once glorious city is now a huge slum built among monuments. Many huge grand structures have been allowed to fall into disrepair, decay and dilapidation.  The city centre, which could well be considered prime real estate elsewhere, was full of buildings with sign boards saying "Unsafe Building – No Entry". 

 

The only well maintained building was the enormous Writers' Building, which was the headquarters of the Government of the State of West Bengal, run by CPI (M) since 1977. A Victorian complex built near the infamous Black Hole of Calcutta (where 146 British prisoners-of-war died of suffocation in 1756 after an Indian prince briefly conquered the region) and painted all red, with armed police guarding sandbag-padded posts, the Writers' Building looked like a Stalinist outpost under siege.  Indeed, riots and demonstrations have of late dogged Kolkata, as the government reeled from the public outrage over the Nandigram massacres (see my earlier posting on crisis in Assam and Kolkata). 

 

Maybe the Bengali communists have decided to try, rather belatedly, to pursue the capitalist race for SEZs (Special Economic Zones where India's punitive and enterprise-unfriendly labour laws can be circumvented) and in the process tried to pay farmers very low compensation for land to be acquired for the SEZs.  When opposition turned nasty, CPI (M) decided to resolve business issues using Stalinist methods.  As an Indian paper columnist commented, the CPI (M) has moved so far left that they ended up in the extreme right, i.e. fascists.  What a mess now! They should learn from their Kerala colleagues on how Kerala is transforming itself.  I was to find beautiful real estate and retail mall development projects in various parts of Kerala, all done without arousing the kind of controversies associated with troubles in West Bengal.

 

Kolkata is a city full of street people, i.e., people who sleep, wash and live on its dirty streets.  I walked around the city early in the morning in spite of the stiffening humidity and found street people bathing around public taps on open streets right in the city centre.  Further off the centre were slums of shacks of corrugated tin roofs, with people living in the most unhygienic conditions.  

 

The City of Joy was no joy for me.  Too much poverty, too many tip-seekers and conmen. With that, I moved on to cheerful Goa in western India.

 

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My stories are too political.  I have to talk about sex because sex gets more attention. Let me try.

 

For a country that was the birthplace of kama sutra, the India of today is surprisingly conservative.  The Indian Penal Code, drawn up during Victorian days without due consideration of Indian traditions, imposes penalties for public display of affection and homosexual acts. 

 

Bollywood movies, for instance, do not show any kissing. Lovers are normally seen running in some made-believe wonderland that look like the Alps, and then they lips would converge, only to be obscured strategically by a tree trunk at the critical moment, all in order to satisfy the strict requirements of public morality laws.  Indeed, newspapers reported a few months ago about an Israeli couple who got married in Rajasthan.  They kissed during the wedding ceremony, which broke the law, and was arrested and fined for the deemed obscene act they committed in public.

 

India Today, a prominent weekly news magazine, had a recent special cover story about an annual survey on sex among married urban couples in India. Among the major findings were:

 

-          52% of the men say they have sex thrice a week but only 27% of the women agree. So the gap has to mean that many men seek sex elsewhere;

-          39% of the women are bored with sex in marriage, up from 8% in the 2003 survey;

-          31% of the men admitted to infidelity while just 6% of the women admitted it;

-          29% of the men and 18% of the women who had an extra marital affair had an affair with a neighbor; 24% of the men and 19% of the women with a colleague; 12% of the men and 11% of the women with a spouse's friend;

-          55% of the men and 83% of the women never had sex before marriage;

-          6% of the men and 1% of the women had sex with relatives before marriage;

-          26% of those who had love marriages admitted having extra marital affairs;

-          23% of working women admitted to having affairs with colleagues at work;

-          8% of the people across India prefer to have sex in the kitchen, but this increases to 24% for Bangalore – does the kitchen has anything to do with Bangalore's booming IT industry?

-          In 2003, 28% of the women watch porn with their husbands but this figure has risen to 41% in 2007;

-          30% of the men talk about sex on the phone or the internet, but only 9% of the women admitted to doing so.  Can someone explain the difference?

-          38% of the men and 45% of the women said that their spouse very often forced them to have sex;

-          80% had arranged marriages and 77% prefer arranged marriages to love marriages;

-          40% of those in Kolkata had love marriages

-          15% of married men admitted to gay fantasies.

 

The report discussed about how the predicament Indian gays and lesbians face in a conservative environment shaped by the old British colonial law section 377 of the Penal Code which also oppresses the Singapore gay community today.  Marriage ads sections in papers have sections devoted to helping lesbians get married to gays, so that they can deal with family pressure to get married. There is even a dedicated website for matrimonial arrangements for Indian gays and lesbians.

 

The India Today columnist wrote, "My friend told me about how he was having sex with a man he had met and in the middle his wife called and he kept talking to her. My friend got up and left. He could leave, but the man was stuck.  That's why what impressed me most about the story of Manvendra Singh Gohill the prince of Rajpipla, was not that he came out and risked being disowned by his family, but that he publicly apologized to his ex-wife in the court-room. That's a far braver act than marching down the main street of San Francisco during Gay Pride…" 

 

The columnist wrote that some urban Indian gay people are already coming out to family, and added that, "But the real revolution, says a friend, will come not when he can kiss his boyfriend on Park Street in Kolkata, not even when his parent will accept his sexuality.  That already happens.  The revolution will happen, he says, when his parents will find him a good husband from a good family.  It's time for a gay arranged marriage. And he's ready."

 

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I flew across the green jungles of Orissa and the high Deccan Plateau of Andhra Pradesh to Goa on the west coast of India, facing the azure waters of the Arabian Sea.  Goa, Golden Goa.  This is one of India's smallest states but certainly among the best known Indian states worldwide.  Once a sleepy former Portuguese colony for over 450 years, Goa is now a popular beach resort destination among Europeans, better known for the sun and sea, cheap booze, cheap drugs, endless partying and pure hedonism.  Unfortunately, this has obscured the fact that Goa is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the state has much remarkable old Portuguese architecture of the Age of Exploration.  It is for this that I visited Goa.

 

I visited Old Goa, which was the old capital of Portuguese India.  I saw the darkened uncorrupt relics of St Francis Xavier, patron saint of Goa and Apostle of the Orient. St Francis Xavier spent a large part of his life trying to convert the rulers and masses of India, Southeast Asia, China and Japan, and his body was found in a miraculously well preserved condition some years after his death.

 

Since then, his relics rest in a glass coffin placed on a very high ornamental platform in the Basilica of Bom Jesus. Every ten years, the relics are paraded around in a procession known as "The Exposition".  When Indian forces marched into Goa in 1961, Portuguese dictator, Salazar demanded that the Goan governor evacuate the relics of St Francis Xavier back to Portugal.  The governor's insubordinate reply was no, as St Francis Xavier was "of the East" and that was where he belonged.  Today, streams of Catholic as well as Hindu worshippers visit the shrine everyday. Some knelt in silent prayer in front of the saint's coffin platform while others kissed the platform in the hope that their wishes would be answered.

 

My stay in Goa coincided with the Feast of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, a day that commemorated the "untainted" conception of Virgin Mary.  Spectacular fireworks, albeit of the crude dangerous type that would be banned in Singapore, celebrated the occasion over several nights.  On the actual day of the feast, a small procession of the statue of the Virgin was conducted around the Church of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception in Panaji, capital of Goa.

 

I got on a mini river cruise with a whole lot of Indian domestic tourists (there are many more domestic tourists than international ones in Goa).  Although the tourism office had claimed that the highlight was a local cultural programme, it was the Bollywood-style disco dancing on the boat that excited the tourists more.  In many parts of North India, the language of mass communication is Hindi but tonight, the language of choice of India's new middle class, English, was key. 

 

The English had actually contemplated taking over Goa some time back but the Portuguese gave them a few bare islands further north instead, officially as dowry for a Portuguese princess marrying an English king.  One of those islands is today's Mumbai.   Remember how the Dutch lost New Amsterdam, today's Manhattan?  Or how the Russians sold Alaska to the United States?

 

Goa has narrow but clean, tidy streets, and few cows jam its roads as much as they do in northern India.  There were some taxi touts but on the whole, they were not persistent.  There were hardly any beggars and the Goans blamed the few as outsiders who have come to the state to seek fortune, like the people of Delhi who blame Biharis, Assamese who blame the Bangladeshis and the Nagas who blame the "Indians" . Some Goans attribute anything good in the state that is not observed elsewhere in India as a Portuguese trait.  Goa, they say, is a Catholic land with a different culture. 

 

In reality, as discussed in detail by Robert S Newman in "Of Umbrellas, Goddesses & Dreams: Essays on Goan culture & society", Goa is only 35% Catholic and there are many more Catholics in the rest of India.  Under Portuguese rule, non-Catholics were discriminated and there was little economic development.  As a result, many Goans had to work in British Indian cities and a number migrated to East Africa.  The poor Portugal of those days, under the prolonged rule of Salazar, had no resources to develop its colonies, and yet had refused to give them independence. 

 

Tired of Portuguese stubbornness and their brutal oppression of nationalist forces in Goa, India invaded in 1961 and took over Goa within 36 hours. 450 years of Portuguese came to a sudden end, and much of Portuguese culture and language have disappeared, although local tourism authorities have continued to nurture the image of Goa's Portuguese heritage in the interests of tourism promotion.  Whatever it is, a strong dosage of Portuguese heritage and a bit of white lie appeal to me more than booze and sleaze, which unfortunately is the prevailing image of Goa today.

 

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Youth in Assam were recently surveyed on their general knowledge. 5% thought that Sensex has something to do with sex. Sensex is the key index for Indian stock market performance.  When I first heard of Sensex, I thought it sounded like something to do with sex as well.  I am sure someone can find a better name that has a stronger association with India.

 

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Why do so many Indians run business without small change.  I have lost count of the number of times people say they have no change for me when I pay them for goods and services.  Either they are so pathetically poor that they run small businesses without any working capital, or they simply hope that I would say "hey dude, keep the change", or both. 

 

While many farmers in India are poor, a recent India Today article reported that wealthy farmers in Haryana State neighbouring Delhi, especially those who had sold land to developers of Delhi's new upmarket Gurgaon satellite city, have become so rich that they now hire helicopters for weddings.  Rental for four-seater planes cost Rs 55,000 (US$1,400) per hour.  This is nothing if the value of your ancestral land had risen from Rs 500,000 (US$12,500) per acre to Rs 50,000,000 (US$12,500,000) per acre in one decade.

 

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I am beginning to shake my head sideways when I speak to the Indians.  I didn't blink when flies were over my face during a hair cut in Rajasthan.  Have I spent too much time in India?

 

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Political tension seemed to follow wherever I went.  Headlines of Goan newspapers asked if the shadows of Nandigram have come to Goa as well.  Fifteen SEZs have been proposed for Goa.  Farmers had riots in Ponda area of Goa to stop contractors from work on a SEZ which they said was really a real estate deal disguised as an IT project.  

 

What will I bring to Kerala, another communist-run state?  More on that soon.

 

Regards,

 

Wee Cheng

Alappuzha, Kerala State, South India

 

 

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