We Are Not Rich, We Are Stupid.

by Pam

About a month ago, around the time Bhaskar’s two daughters were headed back to school, I asked what was happening with Harish, our maid’s young son, and why he wasn’t returning to school as well.

“Essaaa… probably next week, ma’am,” Bhaskar answered, unconvincingly.

dingbat1

Harish is our maid Rathnama’s son. During the school year he lives in this native village in the next state over, with his aunt and uncle, while his parents work here in Bangalore. Harish just turned 13, but we don’t actually believe it. His mother Rathnama doesn’t know her own exact age, but thinks she is around 30. Harish’s sister Gotimine is either 17, 18 or 19, depending upon who and when you ask. And Gotimine’s baby doesn’t yet have a name, but they are quite certain that he is six months old.

I know all this because all summer long there has been a revolving collection of Rathnama’s relations bouncing in and out of our lives. There were a couple of weeks when there were six people in her quarters, which are criminally small for even one person, and a few more sleeping on our kitchen floor.

I can’t explain how this happened, or why we allowed it, or why I bought them sleeping mats so they wouldn’t have to sleep curled up on a cold stone floor. This whole mess is just one of the many cross-cultural mistakes we’ve made so far this year. By the time Harish was the last remaining guest, we were so happy for the decrease in population that we just let it slide.

dingbat1

Now, another month has passed, and I am weary of seeing Harish’s grinning face peeking at me around corners when I least expect it. “Can I watch TV, auntie? Can we swim now, auntie?” Phil and I are both very fond of the boy. He is sweet, well-mannered, and like all the Indian children we encounter, undeniably adorable. But what started out as a pleasant visit has turned into a haunting. When I finally realized I was spending half of every day hiding on the roof in a lean-to I’d made by pinning a bed sheet to the clothesline, I knew it was time to cowboy up and reclaim our territory.

I thereafter made it clear to Bhaskar, who then may have made it clear to our maid, that no more guests were allowed to stay in her quarters. No friends, no family, no one. We did everything short of posting house rules on the fridge. The message seemed to get out, and Bhaskar even stopped napping in our TV room when I was on the roof.

Yet, another week went by and still Harish was in our house.

dingbat1

“So, Harish,” I said. “When do you go back to Puttaparthi for school?”

“Um, Tuesday or Friday I think, madam,” he says.

I know this means that he has no idea. I pull Bhaskar aside and ask him if he knows what’s going on with Harish and school. I say this in a tone that I hope will clearly convey that we are really and truly done having people in the house: drivers, children, the drivers children, the maid’s children, everyone.

He rattles off an incomprehensible sentence:

“Essaaa… Money pdom delations dey adr waiting podr.”

I know Harish’s family is in a grave financial situation. A couple of years ago, back at his native village where his family owns farmland and houses, his father had co-signed a loan that the other party apparently defaulted on, and now the lenders are after them. Harish’s parents have moved to Bangalore to take jobs to repay the debt: Rathnama, as a maid in our house, and her husband as a night guard at a construction site up the street. The best we can tell, it will take them years to earn enough to pay what they owe.

“How much does school cost?” I ask Baskhar.

Instead of just answering me, he calls Rathnama, her husband, and Harish into the dining room. A ten-minute mystery conversation takes place between the four of them, periodically punctuated by them each briefly looking over at me.

“Baskhar, how much do you pay for your children’s school?” I ask, trying to clarify my original question.

Bhaskar plays an important role in our India life. He’s not just our driver, he is our self-appointed nanny, guardian, and translator. The problem is, he doesn’t really speak English. He does, however, speak the local languages of Kannada and Telugu, which the maid and her family speak; and, as limited as his translation skills are, they are indispensable.

“Ma’am,” Bhaskar says, “They bring you billett with itemization.”

I tip my head like a dog trying to understand.

“Okay…” I say, tentatively. “Maybe we can contribute for his books, or uniform, or something.”

The way this whole thing is unfolding sends up a thousand red flags and I am extremely uncomfortable.

“Okee, okee. They bring bill. If you and Sir want to pay a portion, you pay.” He wobbles his head in a dismissive way.

The matter is forgotten by morning, and we take off traveling for a couple of weeks.

dingbat1

We arrive back home from our travels, happily exhausted, in the pre-dawn hours of a Monday morning, to find Harish in the entryway, standing at the ready, smiling wide.

“Good morning Auntie, how are you Auntie?”

“Harish, what are you doing here?” I try my best to sound cheerful.

He hands me an envelope.

“Here is billett for my school, Auntie.”

I am so not ready to be thrown into this pool yet. I’ve just spent ten days decompressing from the dramas of my de facto household, and enjoying the lush freedom that comes when your every move isn’t being observed. I have a chest cold, and there is no caffeine in my blood stream.

I take the envelope from Harish and open it while my tea is brewing. He watches me as I pull out two letters addressed, “To Whom it May Concern,” out of the envelope. I scan the letters and see that they are from two different schools. One is an invoice for 160,000 rupees, (around $ 3,400) and the other for 120,000 (about $2,500).

They are invoices for three years of boarding school.

I am too shocked to edit myself:

“We can’t pay this, Harish, it’s too much money !”

I feel terrible. And to make it that much worse, I can see from the look on this child’s face that he fully expected me to whip out my wallet and hand him the cash. He’s putting on a brave face, but I can tell he’s hugely disappointed. My stomach is tight and I can feel my swirl of confusion threatening to turn into tears.

dingbat1

I walk upstairs, lie on the bed, and stare at the ceiling. These people have so little, and this child has no future without an education. I see it all around me every day: promise turned sour and a life spent in resignation pushing a mango cart or smashing granite into gravel at the side of a road somewhere. These people want the same thing anyone wants: for their children to do just a bit better than they did. But here in India, the infrastructure isn’t keeping up with the population. This is a country where still only 17% of the population has access to a toilet, where 42% of the children are under nourished. 70% of the marriages are arranged, and the people in villages, which is 80% of India’s population, still think it is okay to marry your first cousin.

“What are you doing ?” Phil comes in and sits on the edge of the bed.

“Harish just gave me these,” I say, and hand him the letters. “It seems they think we’ve offered to pay for three years of boarding school.” Again, I’m on the verge of tears.

“And did we?” Phil asks.

“I don’t think so. All I did was ask how much school costs. I didn’t offer to pay,” I say quietly. “We can’t pay that. We can’t afford to pay that even if we wanted to.”

Phil reads the first letter out loud, and pauses.

Does anything seem strange to you about these letters ?
.
“Does anything seem strange to you about these letters ?” Phil asks.

“Let me see those again.”

I scan through the letters, and it becomes perfectly clear that the two invoices are suspiciously similar. There is slightly different formatting but with the same comically garbled English and the exact same misspellings. In fact, if I’m honest, these letters look a lot like Nigerian spam.

“These are totally forged,” Phil says, smiling.

“No… !” I say. “They wouldn’t do that.”

The thought that these people, who we have come to trust, are trying to scam us, is hard to swallow, and I spend the afternoon on a mission to prove that we are paranoid freaks. I try to get through to the phone numbers on the letterheads. Four out of four do not work. I read both the letters over and over again and try to find something, anything, believable about either one.

I speak again with Rathnama, Harish and Bhaskar, trying hard to find some scrap of mitigating clarity: I ask, as clearly as I can, where Harish would go to school if we could not pay for one of these places, and suddenly, between the boy and the driver and the maid, a fact spills out: the child is already enrolled in another school. This tiny, though meaningful, item serves to solidify what I’ve been trying hard not to see for the past several hours; my disbelief drains out of the equation and it becomes all too obvious.

“Oh, my God… this whole thing is just a fucking con,” I shout, clutching the letters in my hand like an irate newscaster.

“You think you can just type up some letters in bad English and we’ll hand you four thousand dollars ? In America when people pull crap like this we call the Hell’s Angels – or the police !”

I storm out of the room, but keep shouting, off-camera.

“Do you people really think we are this stupid ? We are not giving you a goddamn penny, or rupee, in fact you’ll be lucky if you still have a job and a place to live by morning !”

I stomp upstairs and look at the letters again, without filtering the words through my white guilt. And it becomes obvious that his ham-fisted con has all the craftiness of a fifth-grader forging a report card.

The whole situation has knocked the wind out of me. For the next three days I hardly leave the bedroom and I barely speak. I am devastated. I cry on the phone to my dad like a homesick seven-year-old at summer camp. I want to go home. I want to be someplace that I understand.

I fantasize about sitting the whole group down and telling them the story of the goose that laid the golden eggs, and explaining that sound they hear… that is a goose’s death rattle, and the sound of my wallet not opening.

Rathnama plays dumb. She swears she doesn’t know what is on the fake letters, but the way she is shamefully moving through the house cleaning things she never seemed to even notice before, tells me she knows exactly what’s up; although, I doubt her knowledge really makes her complicit, because, as an illiterate Hindu wife, she doesn’t wield much power.

While sulking, I replay the events of these past four months and realize that it is our good nature that has made us such easy marks in the first place. These people truly think that we are rich, and arguably it is my fault for giving them that impression. If I were from a village that raised goats and grew peanuts, and just stumbled into our house and saw the swimming pool and climbing wall and three extra bedrooms, I might come to that conclusion as well. The fact that I took the whole family to the zoo for Harish’s birthday, that I’ve bought the baby some clothes, and Rathnama saris and sandals, and Gotimine an armful of sparkly bangles, just helped to paint a certain picture.

The fact is, we are in India to save money for a down payment on a house when we go back home to San Francisco. Even though Phil and I have little debt, we actually own nothing, have nothing saved, and there is one more child to get through college.

We are not rich: we are stupid.

dingbat1

A couple of days later, the cement mixer at the job site next door fires up under our bedroom window at 7 a.m. and wakes me out of a sound sleep. I’m pissed because right now all I want to do is sleep. I pull on a robe and march downstairs. I lean over the fence and look for the guy in the sunglasses talking on the cell phone. He’s promised to move the mixer from under my window three times now, and I am ready to rain crazy white lady all over him.

Four women are carrying cement on their heads from the mixer to the foundation they are building. A small child follows one of the women, pulling on her sari and wailing mournfully. She keeps walking, balancing her load while she climbs barefoot through rubble and dirt, ignoring the child until she dumps her cement, then picking him up and carrying him back to the mixer where she waits for the boys to shovel more wet cement into her head-tray. She sets the child down and he wails and tugs on her sari. They repeat this routine over and over.

The woman works this way every Monday through Saturday. On Sunday, she does her family’s laundry. Scrubbing and smacking the cloth against the cement wall that her sisters have already built, then drying it across pieces of rebar. She and several other people, with several other children, all live on the job-site in a cinder-block shack with a corrugated metal roof held in place by large rocks. The children spend their days playing in piles of sand that will soon be turned into cement.

I watch these women working harder than I’ve ever worked in my life, and know that if I were in their situation, I would absolutely do anything I could to get my child an education, with the hope that someday they may be able to rise above this grueling life.

Rathnama and her family, though slightly better off than these laborers, are no different. And I realize that I’ve been taking this whole thing way to personally. I did everything short of thievery and extortion to get my own daughter a good education. If I were in their situation, I might have done the exact same thing.

I do like to think I’d have forged more convincing documents.

dingbat1

Days have passed by now, and Harish is still lingering around the house, though less omnipresent than before. I hazard the same question to Bhaskar that started this whole mess:

“Why isn’t Harish in school yet?”

“They waiting por monies from relations before to send him on bus for school in native place.”

Pause. Thinking.

“Bhaskar… How much does Harish’s school really cost ?” I ask.

“Just ten thousand rupees ma’am, for one year.”

dingbat1

“Honey,” I say to Phil later that night, in that tone that means I am about to say something unreasonable. “Guess how much school really costs for Harish?”

“How much?”

“Two hundred dollars a year. Bhaskar told me.”

“And how do we know he’s not lying too ?” Phil asks.

“We don’t.”

Sadly, this is true. Both Phil and I now suspect that all of India is lying to us all the time. There’s always the chance that Bhaskar was in on the con as well: after all, he and Rathnama are thick as thieves; they chatter endlessly in their bouncy languages; she even cooks for him and washes his clothes. If this weren’t India we’d suspect impropriety, but things like that just don’t happen here.

Finally, we decide that ensuring Harish gets his education this year is worth a two hundred dollar investment, especially if it means getting our privacy back.

But we won’t get fooled again:

We confirm that the school is real; we confirm the costs of books and lodging; we confirm that the phone numbers work and that the people who answer do in fact work at the school answering phones.

To further ensure everything is on the up-and-up, we arrange to have Bhaskar personally deliver Harish to his new school in Andhra Pradesh. We give him five thousand rupees, enough for six months’ tuition, which we instruct him to pay to the school’s headmaster directly. We will return to the school ourselves in six months to pay the balance in person.

Bhaskar and Harish leave at 6 a.m. the next morning for the four hour drive to Andhra Pradesh. The following evening, Bhaskar returns, sleepless, unshaven, and thankfully, alone. He places a signed receipt and a payment booklet from the school on the table, tossing us a tired smile and half a head-wobble.

“Beddy good school, ma’am. Harish beddy happy.”

He really better not be lying.

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Tags: Bangalore, child, driver, Harish, India, language, lying, maid, Puttaparthi, Rathnama

26 Responses to “We Are Not Rich, We Are Stupid.”

  1. Leslie MIley says:

    I understand what you two are experiencing. I have just a small amount of what you have experienced but can assure you that this is unfortunately normal for people from other countries and has even happened to ex-pats. Stay vigilant and when a certain co-worker of Phil’s returns from the US, reach out to him. He may have some good advice to share.

  2. Phil says:

    Hey Leslie !

    I am trying to figure out who you are referring to…

  3. John Feld says:

    You two are amazing.
    My experience is that the con is always there, from buying a cup of chai to getting an airline ticket.
    Always try and get an Indian friend to purchase expensive things, but make sure they are real friends…because the con is everywhere.
    I went through guilt for months, and then realized I just lived in a different world, and there was no real common ground, just appearances of commonality.

  4. Sabine says:

    Wow. What a story!

  5. Kate says:

    Dear Auntie and Sir,

    I started this day feeling filled with heaviness .. the weather, all the deaths (2 very close relations dad’s dying from cancer this week, in addition to MJ), the suburban mindset north of the Mississippi, the archaic thoughtlessness of so many .. but after reading Auntie’s accounting — so real I can TASTE the thickness of the dusty air – I, again, feel like I am among the privileged (even though I don’t have a climbing wall in MY house). Though Sir scoffed at me once as he called me a Care Bear, I am sending Auntie my strongest Care Bear Stare infused with inner strength, a sense of personal space and calm love.

    My greatest prayer for you guys is that these next 8 months (is it 7 by now?) go by really REALLY fast .. (at least you always have Sir’s subtle, brilliant humor .. praise allah .. )

  6. Niket says:

    I am very sorry that you had this experience. India is a very complex country with so many different socio-economic classes. Unfortunately incidences like these have larger impact on the minds of foreigners and creates a bad impression about India and it’s people. I hope you meet good people in India too and feel the warmth and hospitality of people there as well. It’s very unfortunate that poverty brings people to such levels. Hope you will have good Indian friends in Bangalore who will help you out to be more vigilant.

  7. Sirisha says:

    I think it’s easy for people to cheat on the compassionate American’s. I know how much it hurts to discover the innocent & kind self falling prey to the craftiness of someone thought to be trust-worthy.

    It’s amazing to know how at the end you still supported the child’s education and saved their jobs!! I wouldn’t have done that.

    Be aware that you can get caught up in such incidences; people in India are not really bad though. It’s just the socio-economic situations in there. Evil prevails else where in the world too.
    I pray that you’ll have a collection of memories from India when you are back!

  8. Dear old Dad says:

    Can you read this? I miss you and want you to be well and happy, i am writing singular but meaning the 2 or4 of you, once again all is well here and getting better, I call a lot and know i am not getting past your voice mail,call soon Love Susie & Dad

  9. Deewane says:

    Having experienced both India and America, but from an opposite point of view (well I being an Indian, having spent 22 years in Delhi and now 3 and counting in the US) I think it’s easy being taken for a ride anywhere, granted that you have money and the naivety associated with being in a new place! My brother was conned in to shelling out money for a “friend’s” car in his 2nd year in this country (U.S.) and I had to change my Indian mindset of always offering to take care of the cheque whenever out with other people coz that’s what we were taught as kids, is polite (but since almost everybody is taught that, the chances of you actually ending up paying are rather slim, it’s silly but fun and eventually evens out)! The dwindling bank account (and the fact that I am still a student) coupled with the advise of some well-meaning friends, who could see what was happening, took care of that habit :P

    I can’t possibly grasp the full affect India’s poverty has on somebody from the US (or any other rich country) but I guess the key is to be “normal”, be as kind, considerate, generous as you would be in your home country, the poverty is a shock to you, but not to someone living in those conditions for years, i.e., not to say that you should be o.k. with it, but definitely not feel guilty or responsible for it. In short don’t give yourself sleepless nights over the situation. Shit happens!

    And some nit-picky things I can’t help saying. I don’t think marriage among first cousins must be that common a phenomena since it’s illegal according to the Hindu marriage act 1955. Of course the law only applies to people getting married under the Hindu religion. So, yeah, that and the Hindu wife not having enough power in a relationship just seemed like a really broad generalization. I am sure that’s based on your perception of the culture and I am aware that as compared to the West, India is not the flag-bearer of equal rights but like I said, having spent 22 years in Delhi, I think women are getting there. And I am saying that as someone whose parents even had to battle caste-related stigma, my mother is a practicing doctor, has been one for over 30 years and has 4 other professional sisters. They weren’t born with a silver spoon or on top of the caste-pyramid but India made it possible for them to be where they are and consequently for me to be here :)
    (Oh wow I think I just penned my life’s story here! Apologies for going on and on, I am working on it :P)

  10. Deewane says:

    What I (stupidly) forgot to mention in the last paragraph is that my maternal grandmother (along with my grandfather, ofcourse!) had an immense hand in getting all her daughters educated and financially independent even though she herself had not even ever set foot inside a school! And my father was single-handedly brought up by his mother widowed early in life, who eventually had to take care of a brood of 6 kids, again someone who could barely sign her own name in hindi. I was lucky to have strong female role-models all around. But surprisingly that life wasn’t seen as too much of a hard-ship! For eg..my dad doesn’t find it weird that he went from no electricity to having an air-conditioned office 24/7 or from being a pre-teen milk-man to a self-made business man. That was how life was :D

  11. Deewane says:

    This is the last one I swear :P, but as I enlarged those fee-statements, I couldn’t help chuckling. Oh I am sure it wasn’t funny then, but it is almost ingenious. I wonder where they could get such authentic looking letters from. Am almost sure the person who supplied these must have charged a pretty (well relative to Ratnamma’s income atleast) penny for them!

  12. Phil says:

    Deewane,

    We love your posts, you can post as much and as often as you like here ! Hope we get to meet you someday :)

    Thanks for your invaluable insights… we are learning as we go… !

    Phil :)

  13. Phil says:

    Niket and Sirisha –

    I hope we are not creating mis-impressions here ! I know recent posts have focused on the more confounding aspects of life here, but (and I hope this is in the writing somewhere) we do love it here and the people all around us too. The problem is that every single assumption we arrive with here (for instance, if a man in a policeman uniform stops you, we assume he is a policeman…) is systematically ripped to shreds by India, and we have to rebuild our assumption-set anew each day. So we get frustrated, and we misinterpret, and over-generalize, and so forth…

    I really feel bad for folks who come to India for a weekend or a week and go back home thinking they have “seen” India – even people who grew up here barely know how the whole place works ! So we are learning to not take things like the school scheme too personally, and we really do love the people we meet every day.

    We just got back from a beautiful afternoon at Lalbhag Park (sp?), moving through the park in the rain… topiaries, unbelievable ancient trees, the most beautiful flowers we have ever seen, it was magic. Then we shuttled around town with our amazing new driver, Mustaq, a kind, gentle, whip-smart Muslim who we adore and for whom we are so grateful (where is Bhasker, readers may ask? Pam will write that up soon enough…). Top that off with a sheesha and perfect coffee in Vittal Mallya and a trip to the coolest Enfield repair shop in the city and you have a perfectly fantastic day in India which we will never forget. Pam will write this up too, because we saw things… sweet things… that must be written about too :)

    So in the end, of course we helped with Harish, because he is a fantastic young boy and we are very happy to help. His family did not have to lie to us, they could have simply asked… and that was the heartbreak, the con of it… but once we figured out what was up, worked through those emotions, and then realized (as Pam pointed out at the end of the piece) that it absolutely was not personal, there were a million little reasons it played out that way, none of which really had to do with us, and in their shoes we would have done the same… once we realized that, we moved on. Everybody is happy now. Rathnama is in the kitchen cooking, her hubby is down the street guarding, Harish is safely tucked away in school.

    We will indeed go back home from here next year with the richest of memories.

    Best,

    Phil :)

  14. I once had a friend who went to India. He had wanted to do it his entire life. He saved up money and bought himself a ticket. When his plane landed, he walked around the airport for awhile. Maybe he even walked outside, but my understanding was he did not leave the airport. After a few hours, he purchased a return ticket, got on the next plane and went home. He said it was just too much for him. I kind of think he panicked, or maybe he was just a but of a wuss, but through your stories I can imagine how overwhelming things are there.

  15. Pam says:

    Thanks for your comments everyone. Everyday we are learning, and though it is always easier to write pithy pieces about the difficulties, I assure you, everyday we find things to love about India. And as soon as my food poisoning passes, I’ll be back to writing ; )

    Pam
    xo

  16. Deewane says:

    Phil, now that I have the license I’ll be unstoppable :) and yes I hope we all get to meet some day as well, but even if it never happens I hope you guys continue to blog even after your India stay. Sometimes the virtual world gets to see the best and the most honest part of us, so, atleast according to me, it is almost as good as the real one :)

    Pam, a lil play on the Jackson 5’s lyrics for you:
    We are waiting for the sunshine,
    waiting for the moonlight,
    waiting for the good times,
    waiting for the boogie
    :P

  17. scott says:

    I have been to India six times mostly to see Sai Baba, I’ve been conned a few times. India is treacherous that way. I love India and don’t hold it against them. For them there is no shame or immorality in trying to get money. They don’t feel bad about doing it. Its just part of the culture. I once stayed at a prominent Sai Devotee’s house in Bangalore. This man had been a regional president and a somewhat big figure. He had money by India standards and degrees. He arranged a taxi for me the next morning to go to Puttaparthi. He decided he wanted to go with me and would take the taxi back that same night. I aksed him how much the taxi was. He told me the price. I paid him not knowing what the one way fare was, but what I realized later was I had actually also paid his return without him telling me. I don’t hold it against him because that’s just how they operate in India.

    Peace

  18. Phil says:

    Scott,

    Next time you come, you stay with us for a bit, OK? We have lots of room and we would love to meet you :)

    Phil :)

  19. scott says:

    On Marrying cousins

    I have a very good friend who is a Doctor in the US Navy, he is a Commander (lieutenant Colonel) He is Indian but was born in the US and grew up here. He married his first cousin from India. Hi mother’s brother’s daughter. I am the only one who knows. He only told me because we were talking one day and I don’t know how the conversation turned to marriages but I said hey, In India don’t people marry their cousins? He and his wife looked at each other in a funny way and then he told me they were first cousins. He is not from any village and neither is his wife. This is very common in South India. In fact that is the preferred method. I had another friend who was a Phd. here from India, he almost married his cousin. In the US its wrong and social suicide but in India it is OK and completely normal. It comes from Vedic times when there were not a lot of people on Earth. It has to be a specific alignment though, it can’t be any cousins. There is some sort of rule of which I don’t know for genetic reasons. Kind of weird that you and your spouse have two of the same grandparents!

  20. Deewane says:

    Found an article about marriage among cousins. Includes some info on the issue about other countries as well (including the U.S.). It’s not entirely accurate though for eg. the part about only the “twice-born” castes having the system of gotras (lineage), coz I know that gotra would always an issue whenever there was a discussion on marriage in my (extended) family, but would still consider it mostly reliable.

    Do check it out : http://www.vepachedu.org/manasanskriti/menarikam.html

  21. WhyIsTheMostImportantQuestion says:

    Scott, your generalisations – “[Stealing] It’s a part of who they are…”, “[Marraige amongst cousins] is the preferred method” is just naive. I don’t think any place on earth lives up to any kind of generalisation, and would most definitely lay a bet that India is the one place that statement holds true (yes, I realise the oxymoron here).

    People will be people. And survival is any person’s primary concern. And India is filled, up to the brim and survival in this country is hard. Every job is contested for, every nook and cranny is being fought for, every opportunity is chased after by ten. And knowing that there are no consequences to improper behaviour, by either the law keepers or while dealing with the transient population such as tourists (Indians and foreigners), makes people who are prone to take advantage of others even bolder. But this is the sad part of India. But it’s like America in so many ways as well – I have had exactly the same experience there when someone thought I was a tourist.

    But there’s poetry here too!

    I’d like to mention one other thing. I’m sure you’ve realised by now that culture shock isn’t something that happens to you in the first two weeks and then goes away. It keeps hitting you. It took me two years to reacclimatise after returning to India from the US. Till then, I felt the same frustrations, irritations, confusion. And knowing the local language didn’t help that much either because it wasn’t the language, I couldn’t understand the people.

    So, a few words of advise: First, stop fighting it. Just accept it for what it is without expectation, without relating it to something familiar. It’ll make life a lot easier. Second, knowing the history behind why things are the way they are will help you learn to love the place for what it is. Third, make friends. Indians are extremely social and your independent living in the US is in sharp contrast against the way things work here. Fourth, use the fool-proof tourists technique while making any large purchases – get second and third opinions. Ask different people the same question of how much something costs. You’ll frequently end up with the right price. And don’t feel hesitant to ask your co-workers for help on ANYTHING. You’ll find that they are more than willing to help you out.

    These strategies helped me. I hope they help you too.

    With that, I say namaste (I bow to the light in you)!

    P. S. To help you with your Indian education, watch the series – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Id7VvjQ2G9c

  22. Fascinating story, Phil & Pam. A few quick comments…
    1. I have a similar ‘being conned’ story so Americans aren’t the only ones being conned by Indians :) It’s really a rich vs. poor story. It doesn’t matter that you don’t own a home in SF. If you are living in a house with a swimming pool & have a big heart or rent an apartment in Raheja Residency & are driving a Maruti Suzuki SX4, you ARE rich.

    2. Like Pam rightly observed, had I written my ‘being conned’ piece immediately after it occurred, it would have come across as “my faith in humanity is shattered”. As one of my friends observed, it’s not personal, it’s survival & eking out that extra 100 rupees to get to that next thing…

    Will return to this post & comment on other aspects but for now, let me applaud you guys for experiencing India the way you are. India is truly a spectrum of cultures, sub-cultures, and nuances.

    Vishy

  23. Phil says:

    On Marrying Cousins…

    Funny too that Pam’s little remark about that sparked such discussion. Clearly there are legacy customs that do still hold sway in various parts of the world, India included…

    But the issue is not whether it is legal or illegal, customary or taboo; the issue is the *science* of it.

    Very simply, inbreeding does in fact cause birth defects, and we see many more such physical manifestations of those here than we ever do back home (where it is “illegal”). I think in a place like India, where there are SO many people, and so many who live in rural villages where literacy is optional, the challenges around dissemination of information are HUGE. So many people on any given streetcorner here do not know about AIDS or basic food safety, and more abstract issues like the relationship between inbreeding and birth defects will be even harder to convey.

    It’s a very tough problem, and India knows it. People everywhere here do their best, though it may be just a drop in the bucket, by teaching and giving and volunteering any number of ways. Pam, too, has started teaching at a nearby orphanage.

  24. Phil says:

    WhyIsTheMostImportantQuestion,

    Thanks for the lucid thoughts. We do see the poetry, I assure you, and we have definitely seen that the con is not personal, but a function of survival. We are going with the flow and trying to be both kind and smart :)

    You are correct too, asking for help here is always fun because people are so very willing to do so. Not always the case in the States :)

    Finally, yes the BBC series we watched before we came here, it surely whetted our appetites !

    Namaste back at you…

    Phil :)

  25. Ellen Fields says:

    We had a similar thing happen to us here in Mexico. We employed the mother of a Mayan family, and when the 16 year old daughter wanted to go to beauty school, we thought that was a wonderful way for us to help the family. We told her we would pay the inscription and for any supplies she needed… just bring us the receipts.

    The inscription was paid directly to the school. The girl brought us receipts… first a few at the end of the month, then a few each week, then more and more. We thought they must really be working and working up to a big finale for graduation. When it came time to graduate, we asked when graduation was. Couldn’t get a straight answer. Finally went to the school… the 16 year old hadn’t been showing up for months, except to get the receipts from all her classmates that she then turned into me and turned into cash.

    (sigh)

    Talk about cutting off your nose to spite your face, looking a gift horse in the mouth and killing the goose that laid the golden egg.

    We cut her off immediately (we had gently fired her mother months earlier because she really didn’t clean very well).

    She came back six months later and said she was sorry, she wanted to go again. We asked what it would cost, etc. She told us. But we weren’t stupid this time. We called the school…no she wasn’t enrolled. She had given us a bank account to deposit the money into… no, it didn’t belong to the school.

    Needless to say, we aren’t planning to get fooled again.

    The poverty is not as bad here in Mexico, but the class and monetary differences exist. The Mayans look at us, with our big houses (in comparison to theirs), our cars, our computers… and they think we can afford to give them things. We do as much as we can, but if we gave to everyone who asked, even those close to us (you can imagine we know a lot of people now after eight years), we’d be broke.

    In the end, I figure we have to look out for ourselves first… we are the goose, after all. And then our own children. And then if we have anything left, we try to help those who will go the farthest with it and who have proven that they deserve it.

    Check out (if you are interested) this story on our website about a women here who organizes the sponsorship of 50 kids now… She only sponsors the kids who can keep their grades up. There are a lot of stories, and a lot of kids who need help. But in the end, it seems to make sense to help the kids who are actually going to USE that help to better their lives, the lives of their families and the country.

    http://www.yucatanliving.com/daily-life/apoyo-program-for-students-in-progreso.htm

    Hang in there! Abrazos de Mexico!

  26. Phil & Pam,
    You tale inspired me to post our own ‘ been conned’ story:
    http://ulaar.wordpress.com/2009/07/17/the-janus-man/

    Vishy