A R C H I V E

India-Letters #4: Of Sunsets, Short Hair & Sunday

June 5, 1999

Dear friends,

I discovered yesterday that the city at dusk is Bangalore at
its most beautiful. I'm not sure why the concept of the
sunset hadn't really crossed my mind here. Isn't it amazing
how you can sometimes go for days and days without actually
consciously noticing the sun rising or setting? In between
the last several sunrises and sunsets, I've had a few
experiences that I mentally noted to share with you all. And
I will. But first let me tell you what this city is like
just before nightfall.

BANGALORE AT DUSK

Last night, I head down Mahatma Gandhi Road (aka M.G. Road)
on foot toward a Chinese restaurant where I was to meet
Meeta for dinner. As I leave my complex,  the sound of the
traffic erupts then slowly dissolves into a dull roar as I
pick my way around the broken sidewalk of the first block.
At the intersection, I notice that the man I buy coconuts
from was down to his last of the day. His daytime neighbor's
remaining wares, a few papayas and banana bunches, look like
the traffic's exhaust had gotten the better of them. Neither
of them notice me and I zigzag through the informal
convention of rickshaw drivers that is everpresent on this
corner.

Block 2 and I'm reflecting on my day. I step well clear of a
sleeping pile of stray puppies. Cute as can be, but a
unseeming dog's attempt to get a jawful of my calf a few
weeks ago has me on the wary side. (Note to maternal
figures: I was wearing blue jeans and there was no teeth to
skin contact. Rest easy.)

Anyway, the dogs fade away as my feet cover ground, now and
then keeping up with a slow-moving double-decker city bus. I
let my eyes wander across this shaky looking behemoth. It's
pulled by a tractor-trailer-type front, with a stairwell
near the rear where a second bus staffer collects fares in a
catch-as-catch-can fashion. All shades of Indian faces fill
the windows, women clad in traditional garb in front, and
men in untucked button-down shirts and slacks in the rear.
Several men hang off the back entrance to the bus, looking
like they are testing its balance.

As my eyes trailed up the verticle line of the back of the
bus, they run into the point of this exposition, an amazing
sky.

It's just dark enough so that I could no longer make out the
dust or smoke in the sky, and it's as if I'm in a different
city. The heat of the daay has lifted and the sky is a
dynamic mix of purple, blue, and a golden yellow. A lit
fountain that looks out of place during the day reveals it's
beauty. Even the billboards along this road look majestic at
this moment. I try to imagine what this city must have been
like 50 years ago. Before independence, still under British
rule with all the Brits' pomp and circumstance... Before
auto emissions wrecked their havok on the air... When the
lush green of the city made it a destination and respite
from the heat of the region... All at once the crowd of
people I'm in the middle of becomes a set of actors in the
romantic, confused drama of a city's story.

I think I'm beginning to settle in here and make the mental
transition from outsider to resident. India as a whole, and
Bangalore especially, is a fascinating history to be part
of. Such a rich past, a tenuous present, and a future wide
open to be the ultimate success story or the most tragic
disaster. I know that my actions won't do much to determine
which future materializes, but it's undeniable that I'm now
at least a bit player...

And what else do bit players do but carry out the routines
of daily life, but with a little added humour and
creativity? Read on...


THE MEN'S BEAUTY PARLOR

Gone. All gone. Well, most of it.

I got my hair cut short. Very short. And what an experience
it was...

I wanted to move into minimum hair maintenance mode. For
men, that means letting your facial hair grow while getting
your hair chopped as short as you can stand.

So pressing was this desire that I followed a sign reading
"Men's Beauty Parlor" onto a side road and located the
actual parlor itself, which announced itself with a second
sign:

   Men's Beauty Parlor
 We heartily welcome you.

I arrive at the entranceway at the same moment as a Indian
man does. He's a few years younger than me with a slightly
beat-up look to him, and I momentarily panic at the thought
of a conflict about who will get his haircut first. Without
words, though, he insists that I enter first. So I step
inside and get the attention of the man inside, who is in
the the last stages with another customer. I touch my hair
and say "haircut?" "Huh," he says nodding, and motions me to
sit down in a tiny waiting area. ("Huh" is Hindi for yes,
and I'm finally over my instinct of assuming people didn't
understand me when they were actually giving me a positive
response.)

I sit down and survey the place. Looks like your average
barber shop in the States except it's built in a
light-colored unfinished wood and isn't as fanatically
clean. Meanwhile, I notice that the beat-up looking guy has
completed some sort of prayer ritual at the threshold to the
shop and now enters, crossing directly through the shop and
straightening up one of the chairs. Apparently, he works
here.

In this waiting area, a few well-worn magazines sit on the
bench beside me. I flip through them and find an
advertisement featuring a very short-haired, buff-looking
guy. When main guy motions to me a show him the ad. "Short
like this." He has me sit down and as he is dusting my neck
with talc and putting a wrap around me, he is studying the
ad very intently.

I'll admit I was a little nervous.

He begins to cut, though, chopping off big chunks of hair,
and I shift to a mixed state of sentimentality for the
disappearing hair and excitement for a change. By this point
the beat-up guy, whose name I later learn is Nagesh, has a
client and they are having a lively exchange in Hindi or
Kannada, I'm not sure which. I drop into a somewhat zen
state of silent haircut-getting.

My only concern is that I haven't established ahead of time
what the cost of the haircut will be. I've already learned
this lesson getting our flat cleaned, so I'm mildly
displeased with myself. Lucky for me, an Indian businessman
drops in and asks in English the price of a haircut. 30
rupees and 15 for a shave. Cool.

A few minutes after that, Nagesh addresses me in English.
I've so tuned out the conversation as unintelligible that he
has to repeat himself twice.

"Where are you from, boss?"

Boss? Well, whatever. "America. New York."

Pleased, he now peppers me with questions as he works. How
old am I, how long have I been in India, am I married, am I
here for work or traveling. We trade names and I throw some
questions his way. Nagesh is nineteen. He's been cutting
hair for four years. Amidst are banter, he occassionally
shifts back to a foriegn tongue, perhaps to update his
client on my answers.

Thrown into the mix were a few particularly interesting
exchanges that I'll...

"Where you're from, what is the price for a haircut, boss?"

"A cheap haircut is about fifteen dollars US."

"How many rupees is a dollar?"

"It's 42 rupees to the dollar, so a haircut would cost over
600 rupees."

They're a little surprised, but not much. It's just the sort
of evidence that some people here use to rationalize ripping
off foreigners. The exchange rate means that I'm incredibly
wealthy here. It's a strange feeling, one that brings with
it lots of questions about justice, opportunity and
fairness.

A little later...

"Most of your people in America, they are Christians, boss?"

"There are a lot of Christians but in America there are
people of lots of different kinds of religions." I pause a
debate sharing a thought. What the heck... "My father," I
resume, "is Christian and my mother, she is Jewish."

This has Nagesh astonished. "So which god do you pray to,
boss?"

I mumble an answer about not being very religious and Nagesh
continues, "When you were small, your father was pushing
Jesus and your mother the other?"

"My parents weren't very religious, either." I take the
opportunity to interrupt myself and ask my haircutter to
make the cut shorter on top than he has.

The rest of the experience continues without much incident.
I decline the shave, pay my 30 rupees, plus a 5 rupee tip
whose propriety I have no sense of. And I'm on my way...

Meeta snapped a pic of my new haircut. Here it is...


Post-haircut Luke

One more quick story for today...


SUNDAY NEWSPAPER COLLECTION

Whenever the doorbell to our flat rings, the potential for
adventure or absurdity looms. There was the banana seller
that came at 6:30 AM two mornings in a row, the guy selling
pots and pans, the spring water delivery guys (3 guys to
deliver two 5 gallon plastic bottles...), the sporadic piece
of mail, and more.

This past Sunday morning, though, a doorbell signaled the
beginning of one of the most unusual experiences I've had.

When the doorbell rang, I was lounging around reading
dressed only in a lungi, a male Indian version of a sarong
that's very common but inappropriate to answer the door in.
So lightning fast, I threw on kurta pyjamas and raced to the
door. Unbolted the top and bottom deadlocks and opened the
door.

Standing there was a averagely dressed mustached Indian man
in his late twenties or early thirties. He held two bags. I
looked at him, he looked at me.

"Newspapers?" he asked. I threw him a quizzical look, since
he didn't appear to have any newspapers to sell. "Old
newspapers," he said.

I glanced at my pile of old newspapers (we get the Times of
India delivered each morning) and glanced back at him. "One
minute," I said, and went to fetch the pile. Recycling as I
think of it in the States doesn't seem exist here. But I had
seen vegetable and fruit sellers wrap their product in old
newspaper and even make little bags out of it, so I figured
this was an interesting step in that system.

I handed him the stack, and he seemed quite pleased. I gave
him a nod and set to close the door. Before I could, though,
he gestured with his hand and said, "Money? Paise?"

This guy had some nerve, I thought, coming to my door
unrequested and asking for  my trash, then asking for money.
"I have no change," I bluffed.

He shook his head vigorously, reached into his own pocket
and handed me five rupees. Then he nodded, turned and left
with the papers. Fascinating...


CAMERA BEARS FRUIT

That's it for this letter, but here are a few photographs
you might be interested in.

First is a street ad for a web design class that's up on my
street. Computer-related training is huge business here.

Web-design ad

I saw this cow on the ride home from the market. The truck has
the name of the state we're in, Karnataka, painter on the side.

A cow...

And here's Meeta (aka Vanna White) pointing out where we
live on our oft-consulted map of Bangalore.

Meeta with map


Finally, keep the ideas, comments and good e-mail energy
flowing this way. Meeta and I love hearing about what's
going on "back west" and your comments help keep these
letters interesting and fun to write.

All my best,
Luke