Thursday, July 23, 2009

Total Eclipse

I've always wanted to see a total eclipse - so what luck, I thought, that Kolkata would experience a 90% eclipse while I happened to be here! I heard about two gathering places in the city to watch it - at the Birla Planetarium and at Science City. I considered going, but in the end decided to try and watch from the courtyard by my temporary apartment.

Unfortunately, this eclipse happened during the monsoon, which means lots of potential cloud cover. Though the paper today had great pictures from viewing in the town of Varanasi, where heavy rains the night before cleared out the clouds by morning, Kolkata was not so lucky. Some parts of the city experienced a three minute break in the clouds right near the peak, but unfortunately my viewing spot was not so blessed. And, because it occurred around at 6:30 in the morning with faint morning light, I could only just perceive the sky darkening. Noise provided the most obvious sign of the eclipse to me - all the birds and dogs made a ruckus right at the peak time. Strange, but people say animals have a stronger internal sense for some things, right?

My quest to see an eclipse will thus continue. I doubt I'll be lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time again, but with this job, who knows?

Friday, July 17, 2009

Happy Bandh Day!

What is a "bandh," you ask? It's a strike and it's something very dear to Kolkata's identity. Having a communist state government for the last 27 years (that's what I've been told, fact not verified), strikes are common -- but of late, the strikes have been rather pitiful, locals report. Today's however, was a full-fledged bandh as not seen in the last six or seven years.

I'm still a little unclear as to what brought about the bandh, which, actually, was called for by the opposition Congress party in an attempt to show the ruling Congress party how much power it actually holds, even though it's in the opposition. It started last night with the burning of six city buses. Today, all shops were ordered closed and people not to report to work. If you went to work, a distinct possibility existed that you would be harassed and/or your car commandeered by hooligans. The street cars were running, and some daring taxis were also operating (and charging double the fare for the "risk").

The only businesses that seemed exempt to the bandh were hotels. Thus, the restaurants at hotels were packed with people (such as myself) who had no where else to eat lunch - or nothing else to do since everything was closed.

My office, of course, was open. And 120 of 140 visa applicants showed up - which, according to local staff, means the bandh was only marginally successful. A truly successful bandh has a no-show rate in the 50% range. I wonder if the local news reports on such a statistic :)

Thankfully, this was only a 12-hour bandh, from 6AM to 6PM. In Indian time, this really means from 10AM to 4PM. As I walked out of the office around 4PM just to see what was going on, a few daring street vendors were definitely setting up shop again, hoping to catch a captive audience bored from a day at home. And, thankfully, Greg's plane isn't landing until late this evening by which time all remaining vestiges of the bandh will be over. The airport didn't shut down during this bandh, but it has in the past.

All this has me and the other American staff wondering - who really gains from the bandh? It's not the people, I don't think. All the small shopkeepers lose a day's business (or face a real threat of vandalism) -- only the large companies with extensive security can afford to stay open. It's not the taxi drivers. It's not the tax payers, because the government has to replace all the damaged property. So, the concept of a bandh doesn't seem logical to me - but, in fairness, no one has ever mistaken me for a communist.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Kolkata: first impressions

I've been in Kolkata three days now and, despite its reputation for being the dirtiest of the Indian "metros" (ie, large cities), I'm really enjoying it. The city has a wonderful character about it that I didn't find in Delhi and don't feel in Hyderabad. This could be because my time in Delhi is usually limited to the "diplomatic enclave" where there's not much except for embassies. And in HYD, we usually stick to the new parts of the city and have no need to visit the Old City unless we are showing people around. The great part about Kolkata is, the diplomatic / posh / old parts are still one - so I can stay in the Oberoi, have a 10 minute taxi ride to work, and still feel the character of the city.

The British moved their capital up river from their first encampment and pretty much built the city up. As a result, the downtown area has recognizable blocks with roads that run perpendicular to each other - quite a rarity in India and very helpful for a visitor. The consulate, likely much to the chagrin of the security nazis, is right in the the thick of things. I think it's great because I can walk to places for lunch! What a novel concept! In fact, if it weren't the rainy season (and hence the messy sidewalks), I would enjoy a 20-30 minute walk from the hotel to the consulate - the sidewalks are actually that manageable.

It's no European city by any stretch of the imagination, however, despite the walkable nature and the high-culture character. For instance, just around the block from the consulate, trash pickers have commandeered a segment of the sidewalk for sorting trash (recycling, India-style). It stinks. And looks disgusting. Especially since many Indian men seem to have small bladders and seem to have designated a corner of this trash heap a public toilet. I was waiting at a red light (thankfully in an AC car with the windows closed) and noticed five men stop to relieve themselves in that short period of time -- and many more walking by with handkerchiefs over their noses.

For me, though, accustomed at this point to being in a city in a developing country, the vibrancy of the city is quite appealing. Friendly people, many of whom have a very creative streak whether music, sports or literature, abound. I'm looking forward to the next two and a half weeks, and hope Greg isn't too jealous!

Sunday, July 12, 2009


I have no idea what "BASHAN!" means - and neither does Greg. Of course, William was saying it, so it could mean anything. Or, it could be William's pronunciation of a real word - not just one of his made up words. But, I'm not really sure what "Bashan!" would resemble.

He was saying it with such conviction, and with such determination and in such a methodical manner, it must mean something. Saturday morning, we decided to brave the Delhi heat (it was 98F by noon and very humid) and attempt some sightseeing. First stop, Qutub Minar (highly recommended), second stop Lotus Temple (a modern Baha'i temple, not kid-friendly at all), third stop Humayun's Tomb. Here, William said, "BASHAN!"

The tomb is similar to the tombs in Agra - in fact, though Humayun's tomb is one of Delhi's top sites, if you're going to or have been to Agra, we actually think it's repetitive and not worth the visit. The main tomb (Humayun) is in the center. At each corner of the building are small rooms, each with one to three tombs in them. Each of these corner rooms had small alcoves with stone-carved lattice protrusions to let the air flow. We didn't take a guide, and I'm not really familiar with 16th century Indo-Muslim architecture, so please excuse the lack of technical terms :)

In any case, we entered the first corner room, and William started running into each alcove, all the way up to the stone-lattice-wall, looked outside and shouted, "BASHAN!" Then he proceeded to the next lattice alcove and repeated. The third alcove didn't have the lattice work, so he skipped it and went straight to the fourth (with lattice) and shouted again. It was very curious - especially because I still don't know what "BASHAN!" means or what prompted this.

We left that corner room, walked into the next one, and he did the same thing - shouting "BASHAN!" in only the alcoves that had lattice walls looking outside. When we walked into the third corner room, he said, "Come here, Mama!" and beckoned me over to the first lattice alcove. I walked over and he said, "Say, 'BASHAN!,' Mama!" Obviously, I had no choice. I then had to follow him to each alcove (again, only the lattice work ones) and say, "BASHAN!" myself. (The fourth corner room was under construction, so I didn't have to repeat again).

He's only 25 months, but given that "self" has become a favorite word (as in, "do it myself - go away") and that every now and then he comes up with very systematic and logical "games," I can't help but be impressed with how someone so tiny can act so old. Good thing there's another baby coming - William certainly doesn't count as a "baby" anymore!

Just FYI, Sunday morning we opted to skip the sightseeing and just played at the Embassy play ground. William had a blast climbing and sliding and driving the bus, despite the muggy heat. In fact, he had so much fun, he decided to keep playing and skip swimming - and he *loves* swimming.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Have pity on Greg

Every now and then I experience a vestige of my past consultant life. These rare moments catch me by surprise- after all, I left Dean in 2005, and grad school and Telugu training were a world apart. As I sit in the airport, waiting for a flight to Delhi, chatting with a fellow traveller at the coffee shop while we figure out how to get the free wi-fi access working, it strikes me how business travelers the world around - whether in DC, Newark or Hyderabad - make the same small talk.

I'm off to New Delhi for one week followed by three weeks in Calcutta, filling some staffing gaps over the summer holidays in those consular sections. Have pity on Greg as he manages the morning and evening routines by himself.

Rest assured, medical care is OK here

We've come to the conclusion that, as long as nothing too serious is wrong with you, India is not a bad place to be sick -- if you have the money to pay for the best treatment. And, by US standards at least, that isn't really a lot of money. E.g., my "deluxe" prenatal checkups are Rs 500 ($10) per visit with no insurance. Last night's trip to the children's ER was Rs 320 ($7).

Before you get concerned, William didn't really have an emergency. He'd had diarrhea all day and then developed goopy eyes. He was uncomfortable enough that we decided to see the doctor on the way home from our July 4th potluck. As suspected (and also backed up by a call to Dr Aunt Beth), the two symptoms were totally unrelated. But, 20 minutes later we walked out of one of the top to children's ERs in the country (according to the medical officer in Delhi) with conjunctivitis confirmed and antibiotic eye drops (which cost a whopping Rs 12 - yes, medicine for less than $0.50).

We're keeping our fingers crossed we won't have to test the advanced medical care, but for day-to-day stuff, we've been satisfied with the care - and the cost.