Saturday 20 March 2010

A rambling about life and work

Reflect for a moment on your day. If you were at work consider your interactions with colleagues, clients, whoever. Was it all work? Perhaps you found time to speak to colleagues about life, weekend activities, politics, sport as well as about work. How full was your day with activity? Are you self motivated or are you only given work to do by someonelse? Perhaps you work in an office, at a desk all day - consider your surroundings: probably they are adequately lit and adequately ventilated, you have a comfortable chair, a desk, a computer, then there are those little items which personalize your desk, cubicle or office. It’s not so bad a place to be spending 8 or more hours 5 days a week. Or maybe you can’t wait to get away in the evening and on a Friday night for the weekend when your life really begins and you can go to a movie, watch TV, go to a concert, have dinner with friends, play football, go skiing or whatever you passion in life is. With all this in mind let me tell you a story.

A couple of days ago I sat waiting as one does constantly here in India. Once again I was visiting the District Inspector of Police to try and get my resident's permit officially stamped. After having found their office as they had moved since my last visit - there were of course no signs at the old place telling you where the new place was, you just had to ask around till you found someone who knew. The new
building is of course another old building, typical Indian decay very reminiscent of Kiran Desai's Inheritance of Loss where everything is generally deteriorating away from neglect, lack of funds to maintain structural integrity. There were no signs up at the new place, so we ask someone coming out if this is the ommissioners Office, No he say and directs us back to the old place. Unconvinced we ask another person and finally get told which entrance to this new building is the correct one. The building is a typical row of two room houses albeit nicely set back from the main road with what could be a nice front garden but instead is lain to waste. The Commissioner’s Office is the second one along.

I walk in through the door - a curtain - the room is about 15ft square. The masonry work is decaying, the electrics have been plumbed in atop the walls, with braces to hold them in place on the plaster. The bolts holding the braces into the plaster sit precariously in holes which have grown too big , the effect of concrete rot, ants etc rendering the plaster to dust. Someone has made an attempt to paint the woodwork of the window shutter a nice steel grey, but the walls have been ignored, only the faded yellow of a decade old paint remains visible in parts.

Along the left hand wall behind a row of 3 large old wooden tables, each covered in their own dusty but colourful material reminiscent of table cloths, rugs or dhurries, sit 3 young men, plain clothes officers no doubt. On the back wall another table and another young man. In the far inner left hand corner there is a doorway through to what is presumably the second room beyond. In the doorway yet another young man sits at the end of the last of the tables lining the left hand wall. All I can see behind him in the other room is a low old rickety wooden bench on which stands an equally old water filter unit. In the far right hand corner of the first room is a TV, its colour balance way off making grass red like something out of a science fiction movie. Hindi movie characters look even more absurd and stranger than normal and the adverts look surreal in their dayglow. Below the TV stands yet another desk, covered in a similar fashion to the others. No colour coordinated interior design guru at work here – each cloth is a different design and colour.

On all desks there are some folders and piles of paperwork stacked neatly in piles. Weights lie atop each pile to hold them in place as fans whir furiously above constantly trying to circulate the still humid air. Dust is everywhere, moved around by the fan's circulation. Almost every piece of paper is aged yellowed, over time it all decays - the ravages of weather, insects and other vermin. Papers are stuffed onto folders, bulging at their sides, all covered in a layer of sandy dust. Everything and everyone is still, the only things moving are the fan and the door curtain. No one is doing anything, conversation is minimal even if I could understand it. Asking about me to my Oriya speaking minder elicits some conversation. Watching TV seems to be the order of the day, but even this is done in silence.

It appears the Commissioner is not in the office but will be back soon. We wait. We wait. We wait. Actually we don't wait too long this time, probably a comparatively short 30 minutes. When he arrives there is an immediate change to the office – no, the TV still remains on, but suddenly there is activity. Notebooks are opened - old fashioned registers for entering logs of activities, receipts etc. Pens are in hands and all the young men have begun transcribing from the numerous piles of paperwork into the various log books. Laborious, tedious, error prone copying. No wonder even the adverts on TV are appealing.

Behind the desks and chairs are old wooden and metal armoire type cupboards, in these also piles of folders, seeping their paper contents. My file is found quickly - did their office move mean they sorted out their filing system? I doubt it. I conclude silently that last weeks visit with VSO staff to the corresponding office in Bhubaneswar the state capital and the telephone call from the Superintendent there to this office has worked. I am feeling optimistic. The commissioner reviews my file and sends one of his young men to make a copy of my permit. I see it does have a stamp on it. My optimism grows. He returns some 10 minutes later, after presumably going down the street to a copier shop somewhere. They try and palm me
off with the photocopy till I insist on the original one with the original stamp. Amazingly after several previous attempts to get this when I was told I was Number 14 but not given a stamp I now have my document. I am official! I have my India Resident's Permit. So now onto stage two tomorrow, submitting my application for visa extension.

My successful day has left me wondering about life, work – the contrast between countries. How often have I seen people just sitting about? Often I am thinking they are looking tired: after all manual labour is hard and rest in the heat of the day is necessary. But I'm also struck by how bored people often look - is this lethargy caused by tiredness? Enhanced by under nourishment or malnutrion, exasperated by the energy sapping heat and humidity? I keep asking myself, to what extent is it a cultural misperception on my part? Am I misreading people’s facial expressions and body language? I contemplate my work environments back home. I think about my friends in Algeria who are able to work only in the tourist season months. What is the different perceptions of work, the different reasons we do it, the different roles and place it has in our lives? I think of the workaholics I know, the people whose lives revolve around their work, who spend 40, 50 hours a week, those who love their work, those for whom work is a means to an end, a way to accumulate monetary wealth, and those who are passionate about their vocations and undertake long hours for little monetary reward.

Of course most workplaces here are largely, although not exclusively, male preserves. Mostly woman are at home. In the early evenings when it relatively cool I have taken to spending some time on our roof along with my landlady and her daughter. Conversations are growing, but are still limited, often repetitive – what did you eat? What will you eat for dinner? Kånå tåme khaibå? When is your brother coming to visit? Kebe tarå bhai asibi? Similarly when I encounter other women it is always the same – do I eat rice? Tåme bhatå khauchå-ki? Everyone is preoccupied with eating which I suppose is to be expected in a country and in a state where people are dying from lack of food. The next topic is how many brothers I have, how many sisters, their ages etc. Domesticity and families. That’s most women’s lives. Here at least they go out, some even work. I have only ever seen the woman from the Muslim household up our lane twice outside the house – once with her husband on their bike and once with another woman buying from a street vendor. My colleague H tells me of a neighbour of hers who locks his wife in the house when he goes out. But generally women’s lives and men’s lives are very separate, coming together in the home only on practical aspects. My landlady tells me she doesn’t like marriage, I suspect many marriages work but only because their lives are separate. Real marriages as she calls them or love marriages are still rare. Even for educated women their work lives usually stop when they marry and have children, and even if they do continue to work their opportunities for social interaction are limited. How lucky we are to live in a culture which means we can talk to whoever we want, whenever we want, about what ever we want. Never again will I allow anyone to complain about being bored when they have so much.

Are conversations limited because of linguistic differences, especially my incapacity to converse in Oriya past the basics. I’ve heard only a few conversations which appear to be on anything else – the Hockey World Cup, cricket – and some misconceptions eg that Bill Clinton’s wife is only 30 years old! But I don’t hear people talking about politics, their government. It makes you realize how much we take for granted in our information centric world – we have newspapers to read, we have radio and TV, we have books and magazines to read – information about the wide world comes to us and we can find it. Here, even in towns, such information access is limited – you need comparatively a large amount of disposable income for a TV, you need electricity to run it, you need to be literate to read a newspaper. Life seems very parochial, the world very small.

Part of me is repeatedly struck by how empty people’s lives seem to be – again is this my western perspective showing through? Whilst the other part is amazed at how spiritual people’s lives are – their year revolves around religious festivals, every house has its puja room, everyone does their puja each morning. Each day I here my landlady and family chanting and singing away, sitting meditating, performing their pujas.

I know am still an outsider looking in, grappling with understanding the Indian psyche. Philosophical, reflective ramblings like this are all part of learning to live in another culture and to adjust to life here.


  1. Wonderful musings. All good questions. I wonder how much is really so different? I love how the conversations you describe lean on asking about universal things between the countires. Like we all have families, we all eat, we all share weather. These sound like attempts to find the common between you all. I wonder if a significant political story came to surface would the conversations change? I wonder if politics don't really affect everyday life so they may seem less significant?

    I so enjoyed reading this post and your writing. Thanks as always for such a thoughtful blog post!

  2. Great post Sheila. I work, as you know, in a book store so my job is one I love. I run customer service and being a total 'people person,' i feel i'm very qualified to do that. I tell people i work for my gym, my hair, my clothes...but the truth is, I work so i can be around the books.

  3. Beej, when I was working freelance one of my "indulgences" was to volunteer at our local Oxfam bookshop for exactly the same reason. I always envy people who caan combine a passion for something with eaarning a living from it, I've never managed to do that, although I have been lucky enough to have interesting jobs, sometimes.