Friday, August 21, 2009

SWIMMING in the Rain, a.k.a, A Haircut in Calcutta and What It Feels Like to Be "High-Class"

As I sit at home waiting for it to rain after several days of almost monsoon-like heat and humidity, and following my last post about ice-skating on the Eiffel Tower, I am reminded of a two-part tale that may, upon reflection, be quite trivial but also somewhat instructive. Anyway it is the summer of '06. As an American teacher, I was privileged (thank you, fellow taxpayers and Uncle Sam), along with 14 peers drawn from across the U.S. to spend 6 weeks in India. Our last week was spent partly in Kolkata (Calcutta), by which time my beard was out of control (but alas, not so much the hair on my head). I had heard it said while in China '01 that India Fulbright awardees are put up mainly in five-star hotels (true, and in one case, even a six-star!), which just knock the socks out of we middle-class Americans who think it perfectly fine to stay at a budget local hotel or motel chain, thank you very much. We awardees were also given, to my complete surprise, an extremely generous stipend for books and whatever. I suspect that one colleague gave most of it away to the needy, randomly, in appropriate acts of selflessness. Think "Slumdog". Part I: In any case, by the time we were in Calcutta I needed a beard trim and haircut badly, but was informed by reception that the ladies who work in the "saloon" were incapable of dealing with a man's beard (yes, saloon, not the American-French pronounced "salon", and it is not incorrect) . "We will find you a proper shop and arrange for a taxicab" (of course, I wasn't expected to just go find some "untouchable" dalit somewhere and sit on the curb while he gave me a haircut, was I?) OK. Well, I was given the address, the cab ride was not far at all, but the shop (which I would in fact not have found on my own) was about a block away from the mildly intimidating sandbags, Indian sharpshooter units, watchtower, high security walls, and anti-bomb structures of various kinds designed to protect both the British and America consulates, both located, as it turns out, on the pedestrian-only Ho Chi Minh St. Ah, leave it to Bengalis to make "Gogol" a "Namesake" (even if only in fiction) and, deliberately or not, to require American government officials to be daily reminded of Ho Chi Minh. Is there an "Adolf Hitler Street" in Ahmdavad? Not yet, I don't think. But I digress. The point is, vehicle traffic was not allowed so that I could be taken directly to the barbershop, and the taxi driver offered, after parking the cab in a no-parking zone (of course, and why not? it is a legitimate form of resistance to the powers that be), to walk me to the shop and wait for nearly an hour back in the cab until I was done. When I walked into the shop and noticed about a dozen people crowded into a small space, I assumed I would have to wait my turn, but no, they were mostly employees. For me, there was: one person to cut the meager hair on my head, another to cut my beard, another to trim my eyebrows and nose hairs, and a fourth to provide a head massage. I paid for everything and tipped everyone generously, walked back to the cab waiting for the explosion that happily did not occur, and was driven back to the hotel. The cost for this entire "operation" was less than what I spend for a haircut and beard trim at home! When I gave the cab driver the amount shown on the meter plus a tip (a total of about $5), the look of joy on his face was one that I will never forget. I suspected that his family would eat better than usual that evening, and returned to my hotel room. Part II: Well, if you're a male like me you may also know how irritating it is to have all the scratchy little hairs left on your neck and back after a haircut: no matter how few or microscopic, I feel them! I have been swimming almost daily since 1982, and after a quick shower, I headed straight to the courtyard pool of our exclusive hotel. It was about 5 or 6 pm. and I was the only guest present in the area. I am reclining comfortably in the second chair from the left, in the photo, and after a decent interval following my poolside sandwich, Kingfisher beer, and Cuban cigar, it was time to swim my 30 laps. Or, I should say, swim my laps as well I could in a kidney-shaped pool. After about lap 10 or so, the skies opened. It is the monsoon. Torrential rain, thunder, and lightning --- the kind I would like right now to break the heat and allow Mother Nature, rather than myself, to water the lawn and shrubbery. Now, where I come from, they close even indoor pools when that happens, in strict observance of Red Cross rules. A hotel staff person came rushing out, thick and fluffy Turkish towel, bathrobe, and umbrella-ready, to escort me out. "Sir, sir, don't you wish to leave the pool?" Well, I'm thinking (yes, maybe I am crazy): "Wow, this is the greatest swim I have ever had, in torrential rain." The last thing I want is to get out of the pool! As it turned out, it wasn't a question of hotel policy or safety rules, it was simply assumed that I would want to leave. Well, I didn't. And I like to think that to this day, perhaps partly because I actually conversed with this guy about his life and also gave him a good tip, the man whose job it was to "serve" me remembers the crazy American who wanted to swim in the rain. So what are the lessons here? It was very awkward being treated with such deference by a serving class, as I am not a Prime Minister, Indian VVIP (yes, that's two "V's", as in Shahrukh Khan at Newark Airport last week), jet-setter, or descendant of British artistocracy. God forbid you should walk out of the hotel elevator rolling your own suitcase. In New Delhi, we didn't even have to tell the elevator operator what floor we wanted. It was his job to know, so that we had to do as little as possible. But you can pee on your own in the toilet. Didn't Gandhiji try to put an end to all this? Yes, but he didn't get the India he wanted. And neither did most Indians. And indeed, there is the Hindu custom of treating the guest "like God" which is a lot different from the new China's resurrection of Confucius' "how wonderful it is to have guests from afar." I, on the other hand, flew back from India to my little piece of the American dream, toting these and many other memories of teacherly "compare and contrast" that will stay with me always.

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