BOOK REVIEW: Border Zone by John Agard

Border ZoneBorder Zone by John Agard
My rating: 5 of 5 stars Page

This amusing collection of poems combines autobiography with biography. It’s autobiographical in that it shines light on the poet’s experience growing up in the Caribbean and then living as an expat in the United Kingdom. It’s biographical in that it reflects the author’s interests in people and history, interests that are most boldly combined in the book’s final poem, “Casanova the Philosopher,” a long poem (though broken in to forty bite-sized chunks) that riffs on the life and legend of Casanova. The poems draw on literature, historical events, and mythology, and also include a few elegies.

The lighthearted tone — even when dealing with evocative subjects such as racism, censorship, and death – makes for a read that is at once pleasant and thought-provoking. A couple of my favorites were “The Migration of Coconut Water,” which plays with the panacea-like qualities that people attribute to their local favorite consumables, and “We Mosquitoes” which is from the perspective of the annoying little malaria-vectors.

Much of the collection is rhymed verse, often featuring the lyrical qualities that come of short lines. If you enjoy poetry with and international flavor and no shortage of humor, this collection is well worth checking out.

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Uncle’s Shop, And Other Mysteries of The Indian Auto-Rickshaw

20140219_152150Where is Uncle’s shop? It’s where you are going if you got into an auto-rickshaw with a driver who has volunteered to drive you around for less than the metered rate. It may not be where you want to go, where you think you’re going, or where you’d like to go. But in the driver’s eyes, by taking him up on a reduced fare, you’ve entered into an implicit contract to be taken to a random store and nagged into buying something expensive enough that the shop can happily recoup the driver’s finders fee.

FYI- Bangalore auto-rickshaw fare is currently 25 rupee (Rs) for the first 1.9km, and 13Rs  for every kilometer thereafter. If the driver offers to take you around for 10 or 20Rs, you know they have plans. (Although there is a small chance that they are counting on you to be ignorant of the fact that the place they are offering to take you is 50 feet away.) Usually, a driver will offer to take you to a place for 4 to 8 times the metered rate (sometimes more if he has no idea where said place is–a not uncommon condition in Bangalore.) In other words, the driver will normally try to rip you off in the old-fashioned way (which eats at your pocket-book, but not at your time.)

If you find the new-fangled rip-off scheme to be a deplorable con, just remember to save some of your wrath for FaceBook, Google, and the other websites you commonly use. They almost all work on the same model. You get charged little or nothing to use said sites in exchange for agreeing to be shamelessly pitched stuff you don’t want or need.

What does Uncle’s shop sell? I hope you like a good mystery, because there’s no telling whether Uncle’s shop sells anything in which you have the slightest interest. If you are a single male, Uncle’s shop probably sells saris and pashminas. If you have a tiny apartment, Uncle’s shop probably specializes in 14 foot tall bronze statues of Ganesha. It could sell woven goods, knick-knacks, bric-a-brac, widgets, tsotchkes, or relics of a religion you know nothing about so you can engage in some low-grade impiety. (FYI- You may not realize this but for the devoted, it can be a bit offensive for a bunch of non-believers to be wearing “OM” symbols or having Buddha statues who aren’t Hindu/Yogic or Buddhist, respectively. Sort of the way many hardcore Christians feel about how Christmas was shanghai’d by a jolly old elf or Easter was overtaken by a giant bunny.) In some cases, Uncle’s shop will sell all of the aforementioned items and more.

Surely I will get an outstanding deal at Uncle’s shop, right? I mean, Uncle is not going to rip off his nephew’s customer, right? Wrong. First of all, there is an infinitesimally small chance that the driver is biologically related to the store owner in any way, shape, or form. It’s probably more likely that they’ve never formally met.

Second, let’s do some Uncle’s shop mathematics. We will call the wholesale cost of the product “C” and the bloated profit that the store owner would like “W” (for “wishful thinking profit”)  and the lowest profit “Uncle” is willing to accept “R” (for “reservation price profit.”) If you just walked into the shop off the street and bought said item you’d pay some amount ≤(C+W) and ≥(C+R).

However, now the driver expects a reward. [Granted, it may be nominal in the scheme of things.] We’ll call the fixed-rate payment to the driver “S” (for “sucker wrangling charge.”)  [You may wonder why I’m assuming this is a fixed-rate payment. Fair enough, if the driver is savvy, it will be percentage. However, my finding has been that between 60% and 80% of autorickshaw drivers in Bangalore don’t understand the concept of a map. I’m not saying they don’t know how to use a map. I’m saying that they don’t get that it’s a representation of the streets surrounding them. My point being, auto-rickshaw drivers are–as a group–not savvy. Granted, certain among them are really savvy. However, my point holds as long as we can except that S>0, for all S–whether fixed or a percentage.)

Long story short, now you will pay between (C+W+S) and (C+R+S), where S>0.  Long story shorter, going to Uncle’s shop with an auto driver will not save you money (unless you’re looking for something specific, and it will save you the value of time to have a guide to show you where to get what you’re after. Good luck with said guide being an auto driver, the driver doesn’t care what you want, he wants you to buy whatever Uncle’s shop is selling. You can buy what you want on your own time.) It’s true that you may find it worth it to pay the nominal extra amount for many reasons, i.e. convenience, a likable driver, etc. Just be informed.

How come it’s called Uncle’s shop, when nobody involved is the Uncle of anybody else involved? Indians use “auntie” and “uncle” as honorifics for older individuals who are in positions / stature commanding respect–it needn’t be a relative by blood. For auto drivers, this includes random shop owners who’ll pay them 50 rupee for dragging hapless tourists into the store.



The Non-shopping Firang

20140316_160803With the notable exception of books, I hate shopping. There are few endeavors more painfully tedious to me than wandering through stores looking for clothes, tsotchkes, knick-knacks, bric-a-brac, widgets, or doo-dads. I do go shopping, in part because I like to eat, and in part because societal conventions require that I wear clothing (you’re welcome.)


Were I not married, I’d be a complete fashion nightmare because I have only three questions when shopping for clothes. 1.) Does it look like it fits? 2.) Does it look comfortable? 3.) Is the price reasonable? (i.e. given that I’m a cheapskate for which stylishness and/or trendiness mean diddlysquat.) If the price of two shirts of the same size is identical, I will buy the one that’s closest to the cash register–or which will otherwise get me out of the store the quickest.


You’ll note, I didn’t include the question: “Does it match?” Correct. I’m not even sure I know what that means. If it’s a shirt, it matches pants because you wear them together, right? A shirt would not match another shirt, unless one could wear one over the other? If you can’t wear the two items at the same time, they definitely don’t match, but that doesn’t come up often. (I know all the bits that need covering, ergo, I can succeed at picking a group of garments that covers all the essential anatomical area.)


I also didn’t include “Does it look good?” It had to look good to someone–they made the damn thing. Who am I to say my taste is better than theirs? I think we’ve already established that I know not thing-one about being fashionable. Now, if it has feathers or a cape, I wouldn’t buy it on the grounds of lack of functionality (have you ever gotten your cape caught in an elevator or escalator?), but I don’t judge on taste. There but for the grace of my wife, go I… looking like non-sparkly Elton John.


So where am I going with this, you may ask? What’s intriguing is that, despite the fact that I hate shopping, I get asked if I want to be taken to a market, mall, or commercial district about four times per day (fyi, that’s roughly the number of times I go shopping per annum.)


Imagine a white person walking down the sidewalk wearing a t-shirt and sweatpants, said person has a full duffle-bag on their shoulder that is long enough to accommodate a standard size yoga mat when rolled up. Where is this person going?

A.) He /she is going to the yoga studio.

B.) He /she is going to a gym.

C.) He / she is going to a martial arts studio.

D.) There isn’t enough information to determine between A,B, or C.

E.) He /she desperately wants to go shopping.


If you answered “D” you’re a keen and astute observer. If you answered A, B, or C, you have drawn a reasonable conclusion, but did so too quickly and without sufficient information for that degree of specificity.  If you answered “E,” you drive an autorickshaw (tuk-tuk) for a living.


For a while, I thought that this was just blatant ignorance, as all forms of racism are. Could these drivers truly not fathom–despite all evidence to the contrary–that I (i.e. whitey) spent my time doing things other than shopping? Did they really think that my days were divided between counting infinite piles of cash and spending it on crap for which I had no real need?


Then I realized that it was tenacious hope that drove these inquiries, and not biases. I came to this conclusion as I was watching a few of the recent Superbowl ads. If I don’t get enraged at Madison Avenue, I can’t really get mad at the aforementioned driver. Advertisers and that driver are both just trying to persuade me that something that I don’t need and have no interest in is somehow pursuit-worthy.


The driver knows that I’m going to yoga or kalari or a funeral (or wherever the evidence might suggest I’m headed at the moment), but they’re just holding out the thin hope that I can be diverted from that funeral to go buy some gee-gaw from which they can obtain a commission. In a way, they’re like the guys (or girls, to be non-discriminatory) who hit on a person who is way out of their league. It takes a lot of confidence to suffer repeated crushing rejection with such low probability of success. There’s a guy in the building where I get both my haircuts and Tibetan thukpa, who invites me into his carpet shop every single time I enter the building–despite the fact that the first 100 times I’ve shown zero interest. As long as said persistent wooer doesn’t resort to stalking, it’s kind of endearing. (Of course, it’s a thin line into stalker territory, and then it becomes instantly intolerable.)


There’s another reason I’ve discovered I shouldn’t hold this persistence against the drivers. That’s that they’re stereotyping isn’t without basis. Most of my expat compatriots do love themselves some shopping. I’m very curious about the root of this behavior. I suspect that it’s the vestigial evolutionary programming of hunter/gatherer behavior carried over into people who don’t like to get their toes muddy, to have to touch anything “icky,” or–in general–to be outdoors.


However, I’m a little out of my league, because I only have this compulsion to shop for books. I’m sure that’s residual hunter / gather behavior, but there’s a goal that can be understood. Through book shopping, I’m searching for a kind of nourishment–not the kind that ends hunger pangs, but the kind that’s an assault on my stupidity. I still don’t have a theory for how this applies to Hello Kitty stickers, Chia Pets, a second (or 403rd) pair of sneakers, or any of the other inane crap the people really–but unbelievably–purchase.


Two Things To Keep On You In India

20140316_160803If you though I was going to say “Passport and FRRO Registration”– WRONG! First of all, that would make the most boring blog post ever–not a distinction for which I have aimed (but I wouldn’t turn down the award for it, if it comes with a cash prize.) Second, I’d keep those items some place safe–like a hollowed out Ganesh (but that’s not where I keep mine, so don’t get any ideas.)

1.) Tiny pictures of yourself: After about the ninth time I went someplace random and was matter-of-factly asked for a “passport size” print or a “stamp-size” print, I asked whether it was common for Indians to carry a bunch of photos of themselves around on their person–because there seemed to be such a presumption that I would have a stack of selfies on hand at any random moment.  The answer was “Yes, yes we do keep photos on hand.” Not only is it common to carry a small pack of passport pics–some keep a stock in various sizes. Long story-short, a lot of places will want a photo besides government offices–more than you might expect.

Americans just take a billion pictures of themselves and post them to Facebook, and would be self-conscious about the apparent narcissism of carrying around physical pictures of oneself. The only Americans who carry physical pictures of anybody are grandmothers who haven’t figured out how to use their phones (admittedly, a large but shrinking demographic) and they carry pics of munchkins–not themselves.

2.) Change: That’s “change” as in coins and small bills–I’m not getting abstract on you. India has a crisis of change–still not being abstract. I’m not just talking about the auto-rickshaw driver who negotiates a fare that is merely twice the metered rate, and then when you get to your destination they inform you that they have no change for a 100 rupee note (and because only someone who values “the principal of the matter”  at more than 30 cents will argue, you end up paying too much.) I’ve gotten the evil eye at such places as restaurants, stores, and even the Metro counter (who should have coins in stock if not the metro counter?) In India, there isn’t a strong expectation that the business will be the one who makes change in a commercial transation–like it is in …well, every other place in the world that I’ve visited.

I’m not sure if this change crisis is created by an inability of the Central Bank to calculate how much small currency to release into the economy, or whether the vast number of beggars are bogarting all the coin.

At any rate, if you are a nice guy and always make change for every business you deal with, you will inevitably end up in a situation in which you desperately need a pay toilet and the smallest money you have on you is a 1000 rupee note.  As paying 1000 rupee to visit the most disgusting place on Earth (a third-world public toilet) is demoralizing, I suggest you horde change like everybody else.

7 Perqs of Life in India

1.) Vegetarian restaurants: While I’m not of the vegetarian persuasion, my wife is. This can make finding a mutually acceptable restaurant a pain. However, it’s vastly easier to pick a restaurant in India. Except for the very rare American-style steak house, she can eat anywhere and the menu will be at least half vegetarian.

In Atlanta, I’d estimate that she could eat healthily and well in about one in five restaurants. American Southern cooking doesn’t offer one a side of green beans without a ham bone in it. I’d say we’ve cut our restaurant selection time to about a quarter of the time it took in the US.


2.) Cheap books: While English is secondary to Kannada as the spoken language here, it’s not second  in the bookstores by any means. Bookstores are common and offer some new options. I’ve spent a lot of time in bookstores, so I usually don’t see a lot that’s new, but there are books printed by Indian publishers here that don’t usually appear on the shelves of Barnes & Noble.

And, unlike in Cambodia where books are  cheap by means of photocopying, the books here aren’t cheap by virtue of stiffing the writer.


3.) Amazon: On a related note, I can still buy Kindle books just as easily as I did in the states. There are some websites that don’t work here, such as Hulu and Netflix, but Amazon operates just fine.

4.) Walk-centric life: Bangalore is not an easy city to walk in because the traffic is horrendous, there is no system for traffic lights, and sidewalks are about as dangerous as walking in the street. (If your eye isn’t constantly on the sidewalk, you might just plunge into a sewer.) However, being in the heart of the city, there’s nothing I need that I can’t get via a short walk.

5.) Servants: I haven’t mowed lawn, swept a walk, done laundry, or washed a dish since I left the US, and yet it’s always done. After a brief period of feeling awkward, it’s beginning to grow on me. The hardest part will be going home, once I’ve become accustomed to a certain level of service.

6.) Climate: There’s been a pleasant breeze coming through my window pretty much all day. I haven’t had to use the AC since we’ve been here. And it’s starting to not rain every night. Of course, this one is not so much about India as Bangalore specifically. On the whole, India’s climate is not so pretty.

7.) Loan words:  I suspect it’s harder for the locals to talk about foreigners behind their backs here than most countries because there are so many English loan words. They’ll be a couple of locals talking in Kannada, and you’ll here: “Waa-wah-waa-wah-waa-wah-super convenient-waa-wah-waa.” So it’s like having a rudimentary grasp of a language, you can kind of get a feel for the general drift of what is being talked about-even if you don’t know any specifics. At least this makes bad-mouthing foreigners a mental exercise.

Outsourced as a Guide to Indian Corporate Culture?

As my wife and I prepare for our move to Bangalore, we are doing research to help us avoid inadvertent insult and blasphemy . We’ve learned such useful facts as: a.) don’t tug on a Sikh man’s beard, and b.) don’t buy a statue of the goddess Durga to use as a hat rack.

Source: Dipankan001 (via Wikipedia)

Durga Source: Dipankan001 (via Wikipedia)

These are just the kind of faux pas a well-meaning but uninformed American couple might make. (Oh, you say, not really?)

Every culture has its little proclivities that seem insane from the outside, but which are so deeply ingrained as to be invisible from the inside. (In fact, I had trouble thinking up such American cultural proclivities, but I believe they exist. Our norms are just so ingrained as to be hard to see. Of course, we are also a  diverse society, a young nation, and tend toward the irreverent in the social domain– all of which may make our cultural idiosyncrasies look a bit different from those of more traditional societies.)

We’ve been reading books like Culture Shock! India, which is one of a series of books that explain the various cultural idiosyncrasies of different countries. (I was first introduced to the series through Culture Shock! Cambodia, though I have read other such books about China and Japan.)  Such guides are extremely useful for explaining do’s and don’ts. However, they don’t necessarily prepare one for the corporate culture of India, which is a mix of Indian, Western, and   multinational business cultures. For insight into the corporate culture we turned to:

OutsourcedFor those of you unfamiliar, Outsourced was a sitcom that ran for one season (2010-2011) on NBC. The premise of the show was that the manager of a novelty company call center is moved from the US to Mumbai. He becomes acquainted with Indian culture as he must teach his staff enough about American culture  so that they can communicate with the customers they are on the phone with all day. Some of the humor comes from the exposure of a very conservative workforce to products that include dildos and slutty Halloween costumes, but much of it is just cultural tension more broadly. The show was popular with critics and Americans familiar with India. Unfortunately, that was not enough to keep it on the air, particularly when Americans who buy tacky crap and couldn’t find India on a map were the butt of the joke at least as much as were Indians. (Americans who buy tacky crap and are geographically illiterate are a large demographic within the television viewing public.) At any rate, the show was clever and well-acted.

One may scoff at the use of a sitcom as reference material, but the show seemed to be well-researched. For example, I know that its discussion of the famous Indian head bobble matched the description in the cultural guide quite well. The bobble is a non answer that can mean virtually anything. The video below gives a more detailed explanation, but the visual is not so good. From what I’ve seen, most people tend to do this action more with the top of the head staying relatively stationary while the jawline swings side-to-side.

This left us wondering whether other elements of the show will ring true. The show introduced me to a new term, “holiduping.” This is when one’s employees convince a manager that a day is a holiday, when in reality it isn’t. To get the joke, you must know that Indians have enough work holidays to make US Federal employees say, “Damn, that’s a lot of holidays!” Furthermore, not all the holidays are national. There may be days taken off in Karnataka that are not in Gujarat, and vice versa. This can make it a challenge for new comers to keep track.

I’m curious as to the views of people in-the-know about how accurate Outsourced was. Most of the cast were Americans of Indian origin, but it doesn’t look like the same was true of the lead writers.