Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Arrogance or humility?

Frustration here in India tips dangerously sometimes into rage, and it's not always obvious why. Today, I discovered that the fee to print out a single page at the hotel's "business centre" was 150 rupees (about $4). The fee--its amount or its existence--wasn't posted anywhere. There was absolutely no notice of what amounted to a hidden, ridiculous fee. But what triggered something akin to rage was the fact that when I complained, I was told, "Yes, that is unfortunate, but I can't do anything about that. That is the fee...," then asked a moment later, "Would you like to make any suggestions or recommendations? How can we improve our service?" Yes, here's a recommendation: put a sign up and refund me the ridiculous charge! "I'm sorry, that's not possible, but thank you for your suggestion. Is there anything else I can do for you?"

It would be one thing if there had been some kind of notice posted at the computer or door. I'd have had to suck it up. I definitely wouldn't have felt compelled to violently scribble across the proffered feedback form, or to speak to the head-wobbling but inert manager about the latest of many annoying hidden fees. But there had been no notice! As with so many things, it seems that, in India, there are a gazillion rules and no way of agreeing to abide by them in advance, or to consciously disobey them. How can a society function without the concept of notice?!

But maybe my anger wasn't really about notice.

If this were France or Russia, and the staff just shrugged scornfully and didn't care to hear why I was so pissed, I would be angry, but condescension wouldn't be part of the mix. Why? Because the arrogant nonchalance with which my complaint would be treated would smack of willfulness, not incompetence. Why is willfulness somehow less scornworthy than incompetence? Perhaps even while an arrogant refusal to help is a form of deliberate incompetence, there remains a fragment of a respectable trait: arrogance is the darkling cousin of confidence, which is something Americans admire and envy.

This hotel manager, however, was not arrogant. He never looked me in the eye with an attitude remotely conveying, "To hell with your complaint; pay up." His attitude conveyed something approaching grovelling, or an extreme dutifulness to customer service at the same time that his answers completely failed to fulfill that duty. It suggested, simulateneously, goodwill and stupidity--a combination of qualities that is hard to respect. But shouldn't a genuine desire to remedy or improve something be admired and appreciated, even before or without results or success?

Why is goodwill mixed with failure infuriating in a way that mere laziness or obstructiveness is not?

The only answer I can stomach is that I was seeing through a servile hypocrisy. That I didn't really believe the manager when he said, "We'd like to know what you think would improve our service." That I thought he was lying and using false humility to take the firm ground of victimhood from under my angry feet. After all, to continue to be angry with him would make me a mean, demanding Westerner, wouldn't it?

But the other, less comfortable answer is that I really was a mean, demanding Westerner.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Who *is* Big B?

Amitabh Bachchan. He is ubiquitous. His eyes aren't shifty, yet you can't tell exactly where he's looking (certainly not at the camera itself, even when addressing it). He didn't always have the white goatee, although now it may as well be his trademark. He looks like the fuzzy monkeys with long rubber-band-like tails that scamper across the road in the hills.

He blogs!

Thursday, August 16, 2007


I'm in Leh, the capital of the northern region of Ladakh. The area is mostly Tibetan Buddhist, and Tibetan refugees sell scarves and jewelry in the bazaar. It's strange to think of them as refugees: when I think of refugees, I think of people in squalid camps who are completely dependent on the largesse of the host country and ostracized from the host population, but here, Tibetans seem to be the majority in this area. And the biggest thing in town is the Dalai Lama, who has been giving talks for the last few days in a nearby campground. I can hear honking all around the neighboring fields. I think the entire town and region is driving over to see him. The guesthouse manager said the car would come at 6:30am for those who wanted to go, even though the speech would not begin until 8:30am --and just 7 km away.

Still, not everyone here is Buddhist. A little after 5am, a Moslem call to prayer sounded, long and incantatory. Perhaps a half hour later, it was the low drone of Buddhist horns. After that, the long high crows of roosters. Not unpleasant at all. The sun came out at a little before six, and the air smells smoky and sweet. It is so beautiful here, in the river oasis of this high desert: poplar trees stand with branches vertical, like people with arms at their sides. Barley fields have wide and variously-directed whorls. Cows wander down the narrow town lanes, moo-ing very loudly.

Which brings to mind the flight up here from Delhi, past the gigantic foothills of the Himalayas, moving higher to the actual mountain range. Large patches of snow cap the peaks of reddish-brown mountains and disappear down steep flanks cut jagged by the wind. In the morning light, the mountains resembled a skinny cow, its spotted hide stretched taut over its ribs.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Waking up in Delhi

7am: woke up earlier to the sound of birdsong out the window and chattering, bantering conversation from a room nearby after three hours of sleep on a hard Indian canopy bed, naked without its mosquito net dress. Half awake, I watched a soft silver beam of light move very slowly across a t-bar at the foot of the bed, illuminating the grain of the dark wood. I watched mosquitos testing the reach of the ceiling fan's wake. I couldn't see anything that I heard, and I couldn't hear what I could see.

I think that India will probably be like this hard bed, the kind of bed that points out all the misalignments in your body, all the crooked tilts of asymmetrical hips and shoulder blades.