From our man in India

Man walks to the barber through rush hour traffic.  Out of 8 million ways to die, man feels like he has escaped 6 million of them.

Man has random thought on Day 5 – Is every f:@($ing family as fiercely funny as mine?

Startling notion passes through man’s head – My lime rice is better than my Mom’s. To his surprise, he is not incinerated by bolt of lightning.

Man has family in India.  Man has family in the US.  Man learns unwanted lesson – he cannot do justice to both at the same time.

Man’s Peddamma passed away in India.  She was a force of nature.  She was a pain in the ass (all forces of nature are pains in the ass).   Peddamma and Peddananna were like one of those large banyan trees, which provided shade and sustenance to a large extended family (10 aunts and uncles, 33 first cousins).  Man’s immediate family had even more special treatment.  His Dad is the youngest of the 10 siblings.  Grand Dad died early, and Peddamma and Peddananna raised his Dad to manhood.  That seamlessly extended to man’s sister and him.  Till they were about 10, they resided under his Peddamma’s stern and attentive hand.  However, for a long while now, his life and his Peddamma’s life did not intersect except for short periodic visits.  He left the protection of that banyan tree years ago.  She had been ailing for a long time.  And she was 92.  So when she finally said the big Enough, man felt reverence, and affection, but little pain.  Her passing was sad, but it was in the natural scheme of things.  It was not a tragedy.  If anything, the moment called for a celebration of her life.  My Peddamma lived a big life.

Meanwhile.  In the US.  God liberated a beloved aunt from her pain.  In return her family had to let her go.  To the Sweet Hereafter.

July 4th, Thiruvannamalai

Where were you on the 4th of July?   I was in Tiruvannamalai.

We started the Girivalam about a quarter past 4 in the evening, and in a little less than 3 hours I was done; drenched in sweat, a couple of pounds lighter, and just as dumb and lost as before.

For the uninitiated, the Girivalam is a 14 km, quite flat, circuit around the base of a hill, which folks treat as a Shiva lingam.

The Shiva lingam is a stylized idol that performs stand-in duty for Shiva, 
who is one of the three big guns of the Hindu pantheon.  A simplistic 
view of the Hindu totem pole has three folks at the top - Brahma, 
who creates everything, Vishnu, who protects the good stuff, and 
Shiva, who destroys the bad stuff.   

Did these guys have project managers to get work done?  I googled
"god of engineering", and found one, Vishvakarman.   I googled
"god of project management".  Nothing.  Okay, that is a little funny.
However, despite the risk of angering the gods of comedy, it is not hard
to see that engineering, the 'making of things', inherently includes 
'project management'.  

You are supposed to do the Girivalam with faith in your heart, and nothing on your feet.  I cheated on both counts.   What can I tell you, I am a terminal agnostic.   As for the feet, woolen anklets from REI, and New Balance walking shoes, did me just fine.    I felt no pain until almost the last mile, when my toes began to hurt, and I developed a blister on my right feet.

While I was struck by no epiphanies, I distinctly remember shaking off a fog of mild misery that had been hanging over me for a couple of days.  Where it went I don’t know.  As I ate a relaxed dinner after the walk, I could not even remember what I had been kvetching about.  I wonder, is that all it takes?  Put your head down, and keep going, one step at a time.   If you have good shoes, that is half the battle.  I suppose you could also use a solid pivot to walk around.  Is that what God is?   I might just be able to handle that.   Perhaps that is why Tiruvannamalai has become a sort of favorite of mine.

No, I can think of one more reason.

In Tiruvannamalai, the worship has no shortcuts.  That walk is 14 kms no matter how rich you are, or who you know.

I have visited several temples on this trip to India.   In almost all of them, there would be the throng, standing in lines, sitting under shelters, waiting, waiting, for their turn to enter the main sanctum.    And then there would be us, who never waited.  We would walk right past the throng, through special routes reserved only for folks who paid extra money, or simply knew the right people.    They would stop the throng dead in their tracks, and send us in, instead.   We would be in and out in a few minutes, and the throng would start to move, and then of course, stop again, when the next bunch of muckety-mucks came along.

I rarely feel the need to visit a temple.   A visit to the temple holds little spiritual significance for me.  It is nice to be with family, and the temples are often very interesting.  However I can see how much it means to other people.  Perhaps for that reason, cutting the line at temples makes me acutely uncomfortable.   I don’t want to be part of the throng, waiting interminably, working that hard, to get into a temple; and I can see no reason why I should get an easier ride than anyone else.

Walking around the hill in Thiruvannamalai, I don’t have to worry about all that.   Mostly, I felt a mild concern about the shoes.   Would Shiva be irritated, and with a lazy flutter of his third eye give me athlete’s foot?  Or maybe cramps?   That sort of thing.  Simply put, the Girivalam is a great equalizer.

After completing the Girivalam, we crashed early.  Next day, my parents dragged me out of bed at 5:30 AM, and got me to the big temple by 6:30 AM.  We had the place practically to ourselves.  What a relief; this is the only way to see a temple.   We were out of there in half an hour.  Then came a quick breakfast (my usual, pongal vadai).  Come 8:00 AM, we were on the road again.

Halfway through a weekend visit to Hyderabad ….

On Saturday, I visited family spread all through Hyderabad.

In turn, the visits served up a smorgasbord of family dynamic – pleasant surprise; genuine affection; guilt trips; polite, but disinterested cordiality;  joy, which is sweeter for being unexpected; voluble, and surprisingly articulate grief of family that lost its matriarch suddenly, and too young; the inchoate sadness of the old ones, struggling against the fade out of everything, including, the most heart-rending of all, memory of the lived life; love, only nurtured fitfully and carelessly, yet still alive; the crushing awareness of the limits of what people can do for each other; and a few surreptitious tears.

As you might imagine it was exhausting.

But that was the least of my problems.

Every visit means food.  Food that is very hard to refuse, and not necessarily because it is just plain good.  With every mouthful, you get nutrition, and a dose of apprehension about the next.  After all these years, you know the feeding will be relentless, and unending – it started at 7:30 AM and ended at 11:00 PM.  See, you can ride the emotional roller-coaster with some grace.  You are older now, and you have learnt to fake maturity with the best of them.  But where can you ever hope to fit all that food?  That space is limited, and inexorably decreasing with age.

Nothing diverts them from the feeding.

So wonderful to see you.  Eat.   How have you been?  Eat.  We are getting by as best we can, like everyone else.  Eat.  It has been such a struggle since your aunt passed.  Eat.  So sorry to hear about your Dad’s health.  Eat.  You know, I am also diabetic. Eat.  What, you too?  Eat.  I don’t remember things so good anymore.  Eat.  What’s her name, my grand-daughter’s oldest, your niece?  Eat.  Real estate prices went through the roof, and I am told we are now, like, millionaires.  Eat.  Pity you did not hold on to your old house.  Eat.  Young people these days, they have their own ideas about everything.  Eat.  Who knows when she will have kids, I’ve stopped asking.  Eat.  Why are you still single, you doofus.  Eat.  You can’t leave already!  Eat.  So glad you stopped by.  Eat.   Make sure you visit again before you leave town.  So sad, you hardly ate anything.

In the middle of all this, there is a moment of frisson, and Chinese water torture is no longer a mystery.

At the end of the day, all consideration of weighty matters like life, death, the inevitable, self-made purgatory that awaits us all, and so on, had drowned, and disappeared in a sea of food.   The pain in the tummy obliterated the pain in the heart.  Knowing that more visits remained, my head hit the pillow around midnight, with only one clear thought.  Holy crap, I have to get up in the morning and eat again.



Can you drive a gofer?

There is this thing, a box, a basket, a very minor burden, at my feet, and it has to be moved a 100 feet or so.

I can do the thing myself, in less time than it will take to complete this thought.


I can summon a gofer whom I will instruct to perform the same work.

In India, in some circles, the latter is the way to go.  There are always gofers; if you cannot find your own, you must use someone else’s.  I can have all the time in the world, but I must not do the work myself.  I did what came naturally a few times, and caused significant consternation up and down the totem pole.

I had always fetishized a sort of low footprint self-reliance.  Get through the day with a minimum of dependence on other folks.   Here, an entirely opposite skill is prized.   I must be able to acquire, maintain, and drive, a small crew of gofers, who will do all of my personal work, except of course, the very personal ones.

This morning, I noticed cobwebs at a couple of corners in our house.   I stood there looking at them, and then called the young lady gofer that works for my parents.  I showed her the cobwebs and started to turn away before it occurred to me to raise my arms 45 degrees and clear away the cobwebs myself.  Predictably, the lady gopher said, “Don’t, don’t, I will take care of that”.

After trying to conserve bandwidth for a few days ….

I looked around for help on slowing down the speed at which I was eating up my monthly allotment of bandwidth, and found that many other people have tread this path before. Here is one pretty nice reference at Million Clues.

As various references suggested, I switched to FireFox, and installed two Add-ons, AdBlock Plus, and ImgLikeOpera.

I don’t have any scientific proof that this has reduced my bandwidth consumption, but I can certainly see that both banner ads (AdBlock Plus), and images (ImgLikeOpera) are not fetched.   Pages are loading faster.

ImgLikeOpera has the more significant impact on my user experience.  I have set it to block all images by default.   It has been interesting going about my business on the web without any images.   Some types of sites accommodate the missing images much better than others.

EspnCricinfo looks bad without images.  They use images for backgrounds of menus, without the background image, the menu items simply get mixed up with the other text.

Shopping sites were hard to deal with, which I suppose is natural.  After about 10 minutes on the Croma site, I gave up and turned on all images.   Large shopping sites like Zappos, and Amazon, will not work very well on low bandwidth.   On the other hand, I imagine that their mobile sites are designed with bandwidth constraints in mind.

News sites did much better.   The New York Times site was lovely.  Without images it continued to look very familiar.   Missing images were clearly marked, and stayed out of the way of the text.  The text itself was in exactly the same places that it always is.  Washington Post was a little uneven.  Talking Points Memo was clean.   Political Wire never has news images, and isn’t that a nice decision.

I have a renewed appreciation for the tech and design folks at the New York Times.   They probably wouldn’t even hire me as a janitor.

Facebook was interesting.   At first, it was very hard to use with all images turned off.   After a couple of days, it is beginning to feel natural.  I guess the brain adjusts.  It gets used to the visual cues that the images provide.   After a couple of days without images, you begin to learn the cues that the other content provides.

I have deliberately stayed away from many of the Indian sites.   My experience these past few weeks at these sites has not been very pleasant.   Their attention to user experience, to put it mildly, is uneven.   Dedicated E-commerce sites (FlipKart, InfiBeam, SnapDeal, etc.) have been generally much better than enterprise sites (Tamil Nadu Electricity Board, Tata Docomo, Karur Vysya Bank, etc.).

This is all very interesting.  I have never had to take available band-width into account when coming up the design for a web UI.   I wonder how seriously this is addressed by developers who cater to folks in the first world.   However, everybody is moving towards ‘mobile design first’.   One of the basic constraints of that world, is limited bandwidth.  Decisions made for the mobile design will bleed into the desktop, and that will address bandwidth shortage in a natural manner, I expect.



Dealing with low Internet bandwidth, in India

In India, Internet bandwidth is limited, and the more you want, the more expensive it is.  We know that carriers in the U.S. are going in this direction too.

I got myself what is known as a “data card” (essentially a barebones phone, which plugs into your USB port, and allows you to dial out to the internet) with a pretty high band-width plan.  The promise is 3 GB per month, at more than decent speeds, and after I go past the 3 GB limit, the speed is throttled down significantly.

3 GB per month seemed adequate when I signed up.   In the U.S my mobile plan only has a 2 GB limit, and I barely use half of it each month.   I had that in mind when I took the 3 GB plan.   However, in the two weeks since I got the data card, I have used up close to 2 GB already.  I did not stream any video, or audio.  All I have been doing is reading news, and trying to get some work done online.  Needless to say I was shocked.   It appears that I forgot that most of my usage in the U.S happens over my landline, and through my work.   Now, I am forced to pay attention to how I use the Net.

This morning, I was paying some bills through my bank’s online bill payment service.  For the first time I noticed how I heedlessly waste bandwidth.   I would enter the amount for one bill, submit that, which took me through a couple of pages, and then start my next bill, which would take me through those pages all over again.  In fact, my bank allows me to enter payments for several bills at the same time, which would take me through those same two or three confirmation pages, but I would be visiting these pages only once.

I was reminded of how my mother gathers several errands together before she ventures into the city.  Any trip from our home in the southern outskirts of Chennai, a place called Kelambakkam, into the city and back, burns through a whole day.  It simply is not practical to expect to travel into Chennai two or three times a week.  Nothing else would get done at home.   You have to try and get a lot of work done on any one trip.

Another thought occurred to me while I was at my bank’s web site.  All I really want to do is specify a biller, a payment amount, perhaps a payment date, and say, go.   If the bank had a RESTful API, which it exposed to me, I could get this done in 3 lines of script.  Pick your poison – Javascript, Python, Groovy, PHP, whatever.  Imagine how little bandwidth that would require.

However, this will work only for the geeks.   Regular folks need a UI.

Ah, and suddenly, mobile apps make sense.   With mobile apps, presentation happens completely at the client.   None of the artifacts (images, bloated Javascript, CSS, etc.) that make up the presentation will travel between the client, and the server.   Rather, only the data, and a command or two will, just like with an adhoc script I might cook up to talk to a RESTful API.

I should find out exactly what is eating up the bandwidth.  I wonder how much the damned advertisements consume.

Update on the driving, in India

In the past couple of weeks, I have continued to drive on and off. Daytime driving has become significantly easier, while driving at night remains a lost cause.

Don’t think, just drive

During the day, driving has become almost instinctive. Naturally, the traffic has not changed, but it seems to bother me less. I am noticing more. If there are 10 vehicles in front of me, I am now able to, almost unconsciously, plot a way through them.  You can guess the relative speeds of the various types of vehicles, judge who is about to make what move, and in turn make a decision yourself.   The blind spots exist, but I don’t seem to worry about them.

How all this happened is not clear.  I don’t consciously understand what it is I am seeing, and what I am not seeing.  Now and then deliberate thought suddenly intrudes, which, to little surprise, kills the fluency.   Do you remember that advice Kevin Costner’s catcher gives Tim Robbins’ talented but green pitcher, in Bull Durham?  Don’t think, just throw, or something to that effect.   That is where I am with the driving, I think.

Remember, one of the two simple rules that govern driving here – if you see a space in front of you that will fit your vehicle, you must fill it.  There is a little bit more to it.  You must fill that space fast.   You see a hole, gun the motor, rush into that hole, and slam the brakes. This is how our driver does it, which I found puzzling, until now.   If you don’t fill that space when you have the opportunity, somebody else will, which slows you down.   Moreover, being decisive in that manner provides clarity to the vehicles around you. Remember, you are constantly surrounded by other vehicles, each confronting the same problems you are.   Several times, I could clearly see my hesitation cause confusion in the other guy – he is forced to slow down and wonder what the heck is going on with me.  When this spreads to several vehicles, you have gummed up the works.

3 …. 2 …. same difference

I’ve driven on the Chennai Bypass a few times now.   This is a 6 lane highway, 3 in each direction, with a divider in between.   As you can imagine driving on this road is a little less challenging, but not entirely without the Indian touch.    I noticed that the larger vehicles rarely used the far left lane.  It would be largely empty, save for a few slower, smaller vehicles, like the two and the three wheelers.   It is not like folks maintain any kind of lane discipline; they usually drift into whatever space is available, so that almost free lane was incongruous.   I realized what the answer was this morning (we are on the road again this weekend).

Some sons of India drive down your side of the highway, in the opposite direction.  That far left lane is the one they use.  You don’t mind that; you must leave room for bending the rules, because someday you will need to do that yourself.

Even more interesting, at night, large, cargo carrying trucks simply park themselves on that lane.  We were on the bypass early this morning, and large stretches of the far left lane had become a rest area.   Perfectly reasonable position, if you ask me.   You take two lanes, and we’ll use one, for whatever.  Didn’t your Mom teach you to share?

The problem isn’t the sharing.  The issue is that this is a violation of the promise that a ‘three lane highway’ makes to you.  When they built that highway, a civic contract came into being, which said what you could expect from a ‘three lane highway’.  Such promises are almost never completely kept.  These civic contracts are satisfied only partially.  If you cannot temper your expectations accordingly, God help you, and the people around you.

So it goes.

Done with the night

At night, I am okay as long as I am on one of those roads where opposing traffic is hidden from view by a divider.   When I am forced to deal with the lights of the oncoming traffic, I am toast.   Maybe my eyes have just grown old, or maybe the creeping diabetes has rendered them less effective than they could otherwise be.  I can barely see the road in front of me.  On a drive from Alwar Thirunagar, to Kelambakkam, through rush hour traffic, around 8:00 PM, my eyes became tired by the time we hit Vandalur.   I have never felt that before.   I had to fight the urge to shut my eyes, and lay my head back on the seat.  We still had about 15 kms to go.

I went walking one night, on Vandaur road, which turned out to be exactly like driving at night.   You don’t really have a sidewalk, and hence you are virtually part of the traffic on the road.   I could barely see 5 feet in front of me sometimes.   It was unsafe.

I will drive at night only if I absolutely have to.

Look to the culture, Luke

Five of us went to Tirumala last week. We walked up Srivari Mettu, which is a flight of steps (2400, I think they said) that goes straight up the back of the mountain on top of which Tirumala sits. The climb was challenging, but not impossible.

At Tirumala, accommodations had been arranged in lodgings that were represented to us as “very good”. We got to the rooms, and to little surprise, found them, not so good.

The room, an apartment really, was large. It had three bedrooms, one of which had a window air-conditioner, two bathrooms, a dining room, and what appeared to be space for cooking. The rooms were fairly clean, and the sheets looked washed.  That is the good news.

The paint had peeled off in several places, and these spots were patched in different shades of the original color. There were several large stains on the walls. One bathroom’s geyser did not turn on, and the other bathroom did not have a knob on the hot water tap. The doors to both bathrooms were pockmarked with rust, and the bottom of the doors were actually eaten away.

The rooms looked, and felt, sadly, rather shabby.

The room cost 2000 rupees I think, which ain’t exactly peanuts.

Tirumula is reputedly one of the richest religious institutions in the world.  I will bet my life they have the resources to maintain those rooms well. They have the money, and God knows there is never a shortage of labor.

Why didn’t they do better? After all, they have the means. It has to be because they felt it was not necessary. The people who rent those rooms will gladly accept them as is.

Or, is it possible that the powers that be, think that the rooms, as they exist now, are indeed well maintained?

My mother, who lives in India, travels a lot, and almost surely has seen worse, thought the rooms were par for the course. Her sister, my aunt, who lives in Florida, had a major freakout. I, who travel between the U.S and India regularly, am a little bit more inured to the unevenness of Indian life, and staked out a middle ground – moderate irritation, tempered by grimly amused resignation.  There is a T-Shirt out there that says, “Surrendering to India”.  That is my mantra.

In fact, I don’t believe that the management really believes that the rooms are well-maintained. Everyone knows that more is possible.  You can find good maintenance in India. Maintenance where attention is paid to detail. Management that walks in the shoes of the guests, anticipates their needs, and satisfies them, efficiently, quietly, even imaginatively, and elegantly. In Tirumala itself, we found a restaurant, called Sarangi, which was a perfect example of this.

The difference between an establishment like Sarangi, and our rooms, is cost. That was an expensive restaurant. Only clientele of a certain economic class would frequent Sarangi.

So good maintenance, as defined above, is only available to the affluent. A very large swath of Indian society is never given good maintenance as the norm.  Not even when you have the means to provide it.  This slice of society accepts that lackluster maintenance is normal, and good enough. This is what they receive, and in turn, this is what they themselves are conditioned to provide.

You have a roof over your head, so what if the walls are stained and badly painted. You can close and lock the bath room door, so how does it matter if the door looks like it might give you a disease if you touch it. You have running water, so who cares if the water heater is mere ornamentation, and an ugly one at that.

The software you build performs the business function you need. So who cares if the user interface is confusing, error prone, and has poor finish.  The code runs, so who cares if it is unintelligible. The reported bug is fixed, so who cares if fix adds more strands of spaghetti.  The enhancement came in on time so who cares if you copied and pasted thousands of lines of code, rather than analyze, and re-factor.

Those inexpensive programmers that you outsource your work to – where do you think they learnt what is important and what is not? Where do you think they learn how to perform a task?   They learn it everyday, ever since they are in knee pants, in places like those guest rooms in Tirumala.

You see this everywhere.  Here is an another example.

There is a multiplex / food court /entertainment center, called Mayajaal, in Chennai. The multiplex has 16 screens. The tickets range from 120 rupees to 150 rupees I think. This place makes money hand over fist. Exactly like Tirumala, Mayajaal does not lack resources.

My parents and I went to a movie there, and took the elevator up to our screen. The linoleum floor of the elevator had a huge gash in it. Part of it was just gone. The railing that runs along the wall of the elevator had been ripped off. The restroom had those automatic air dryers, but the electrical sockets were hanging out of the walls. I mean there was a hole in the wall, and the board with the outlets had just been pushed into the hole.

I repeat, Mayajaal makes a lot of money. It makes enough to fix the elevator, and actually install the damn electrical outlets.

So why don’t they? Because neither Mayajaal, nor the folks that frequent Mayajaal, think it is truly necessary.

What do you believe these folks might think about “user experience”, or “software engineering”? I would guess, they consider such notions quaint, but ultimately unimportant. You get to see the movie, so who cares what the elevator looks like. You have a place to relieve yourself, so who cares how a fixture is installed.  God is not in the details. It simply is not part of their day to day life. They don’t see it. They don’t expect it. They don’t know how to supply it. They cannot understand how someone might think otherwise.

Many of your inexpensive programmers, are exactly these folks.

These past few years I’ve had occasion to work with such resources.   They were almost universally smarter, and more hard working than me.  They consistently delivered the goods in acceptable time.  However, I believe I consistently produced better software, soup to nuts – business and technical analysis, design (internal, and external), and construction.   The quality of their work made me very frustrated, angry, would leave me in despair, really.   I don’t think I will ever feel that way again.   You see, now I know where these folks are coming from.

How do you take a bright, enterprising, middle class, or lower middle class kid, from some small town like Khamman, or Villupuram, who has a degree from one of those hundreds of engineering colleges that have mushroomed up all over Andhra, and Tamil Nadu, pay him 2 or 3 lakhs a year, and get him to care about detail?   That is the challenge.   How do you inculcate a decidedly alien culture in someone like him?

A small thing that used to drive me, and some of my fellow travelers crazy, was the chronic misspelling of variable names in the code.   There is only one cure for it.  Visit India.  In the past few weeks, I’ve seen misspelt shop signs, and traffic sign boards.  My Dad’s letter-head has issues.  My cousin’s wedding invitation had an obvious error.  Note, these are all significant documents, affecting branding, and important life events.  Why did they not proof-read this stuff?   The money surely is available, and how much time does it take to proof-read a shop sign, or even a wedding invitation.

The answer – they don’t believe it matters.  How can we expect a programmer who grows up with this, to care about correctly spelling an identifier in computer code?   The user doesn’t even see it, for God’s sake.

My favorite so far is this road sign, on a bend in the Puthur – Oothukottai route from Tirupathi to Chennai: “Cures Ahead.  Goo Slow“.

Today, on my morning walk down Vandalur Road, I saw the local trash collection service in action.  They wore brown uniforms, and were dumping the trash into a metal cart, which they were pulling behind a bicycle.  Nice.   But.  The carts were open.   I could already see flies buzzing around, and in the cart.  Soon the cart would fill up, and trash would start to spill out.

Why did it not occur to them to put a lid on that small cart?   How are we going to get them to care about that missing lid?  I am coming around to the idea, that this is the primary challenge of outsourcing.  Everything else is just technical detail.


Sunday on the road, in Chennai

On Sunday, May 26th, 2013, I played driver on all the trips we made into Chennai.   Our driver rode shotgun.

We left Kelambakkam around 9:45 AM, and headed to Tiruvanmiyur first.   Down the OMR I drove, up to the Shollinganallur intersection, cut across to the ECR, and then turned north on the ECR to Tiruvanmiyur.

After visiting with a cousin who lives in Tiruvanmiyur for about an hour (a ripe mango, coffee, and catching up), I headed to Vepery, where a paternal aunt lives.   After considering, and discarding the Beach Road route, we went through Besant Nagar, Teynampet, onto Mount Road, and then turned by Spencers to the Egmore station, from where my aunt’s house is a stone’s throw.

I spent a couple of hours at my aunt’s (grief about my marital status, a very Tamilian lunch, general bull session with my cousin and his wife) and at a little after 2 PM, we started for home.   Now we drove past Central Station to the Beach Road, and simply took that through Adyar, back to the OMR.   We were home in slightly less than an hour.

In the evening, my parents and I went out to a movie (Ethir Neechal – smart, and light on its feet, in the way Tamil movies often are), and after that, dinner.  The movie was playing in the multiplex in Mayajaal, which is on the ECR.   After the movie finished around 8:30 PM, we drove towards Tiruvanmiyur again, to Hot Chips, where we refueled with a quick meal, and returned home on the OMR.

Needless to say, the exercise was interesting.

Sunday traffic

Traffic falls off to an astonishing degree on Sunday.   On a weekday, the same drives would have taken almost twice as long.  I knew the roads would be relatively empty on Sunday, which is why I picked that day for my test drive.  However, I was surprised at the extent of the difference.  The stress of living in the city during the week seems to be so high that folks are happy to stay off the roads on Sunday.  Most shops are closed on Sunday, but movies are open, and so are restaurants, not to mention temples.  But few takers, that I could see.

All through the day I noticed cars that were traveling much slower than I was.   Remember, I am supposed to be the delicate driver, conditioned by the soft life in America, and thrown into the deep-end of the hell that is Indian driving.  Regardless, I got the distinct impression that I was negotiating the roads more assertively than a lot of other folks.  Later a possible explanation came to mind.  These are car owners, driving their vehicles themselves.  During the week, they have drivers who deal with the harsh realities of Indian traffic, while the owners sit in the back-seat, and day-dream in air-conditioned comfort.  Perhaps on Sundays, the drivers have a day off, and the owners gingerly take their cars out into the sunlight themselves.  Leave traffic aside; I can imagine that some of the owners are not even fluent drivers.  They have no need to become good drivers.  Just a theory.

Facility and Insanity

I pulled out of our neighborhood, and onto Vandalur road.   The car was beginning to feel familiar, and the road was fairly empty, and since it had a concrete divider there would be little chance of traffic in the opposite direction.  Almost without thought, my body sagged in relief, and I began to swivel my head this way and that, looking around.  Bang at that moment, our driver, sitting next to me, yelled a warning.  I snapped my gaze back to the road in front of me, and there was a motor bike, weaving out of the way.   Where the hell did he come from?    The road in front of me was empty a moment ago.

After the initial alarm subsided, my driver explained, and I saw what had happened.   The concrete divider has breaks, which you become aware of only when you are almost at them.  Moreover bushes have been planted on the divider, which blocks your view of the traffic on the other side.   Vehicles come across those breaks in the divider without stopping, and without warning.  If you are new to Vandalur road, and you are not prepared for these virtually invisible breaks in the divider, you are liable to be surprised.   As I was.

This is classic India.   The divider is a good idea.   It makes driving so much easier.  The traffic moves more smoothly, and you waste less time.   Even the bushes on the divider have something going for them.   The road looks pleasant.  At night, the bushes block the head lights on the opposite traffic.   However, what the heck is going on with those breaks?   Why isn’t there any kind of indication that they exist?   Why is there nothing that forces traffic to stop at those breaks, and give folks a chance to proceed safely?

Now that I know those breaks exist in the divider, and I also know that I may have little warning about vehicles that may be coming through those breaks, I necessarily have to slow down on Vandalur road.   It is better than a one lane road, but it has all these hidden surprises, which defeat some of the benefits of a divided road.   Why can’t they think something through completely?  How could they not know how those breaks in the divider would be used?

Well, that is India.  It gives with one hand, and takes some of it away with the other.  I’ve seen Indian computer code with exactly the same personality.

Some batsman say they like to face brutal, short-pitched bowling first-up, as soon as they reach the crease.  It knocks them into a fighting frame of mind.  This incident on Vandalur road had the same effect on me.    It woke me up.   I was now completely cognizant of where I was, and went on full Indian Driving Alert (INDRA).

Er, rules, anyone?

I can’t see that there are any accepted rules of the road.  The method, such as it is, seems to consist of just two points.  One, don’t run into anyone.   Two, if you find a gap in front of you that can accommodate the vehicle you are driving, fill that gap.  Beyond that, Indian driving is a free for all.

There are speed limits.  But apparently, you are apprised of them only when a cop stops you (I haven’t seen a single sign yet).  However, 9 times out of 10, you can bribe your way out of the situation, so there is really no need to take the speed limit into account, ever.

I see traffic lights, but many people, treat them as a suggestion, rather than a mandate.   On a red light, they slow down, look for traffic they might need to avoid, see if any cops are around, and if not, just keep going.   I saw a whole damn bus go straight through a red light.  I was told it was a government bus, and they can do anything they want.   The possibilities are limitless, so to speak.

You cannot count on anything.   You absolutely have to watch everything, and look everywhere, all the time.   Imagine the most unlikely thing this side of a UFO that might come across your path on the road,  and I will bet my last shirt it will happen.

Mama, where did that motorcycle come from?

Back in the U.S.A, I always have a good idea of what traffic is around me.   So much so that I very rarely have to look over my shoulder when I shift lanes, or pass someone.    In my more vain moments I like to think that this is like the awareness that a quarterback has of the defenders – he knows where they are, and where they are headed, apparently without deliberately looking.   On Sunday, driving in Chennai, that instinct completely disappeared.  I had no idea what was behind me, on my left, or on my right.  I don’t quite know why.

Perhaps there simply are too many vehicles.   You share the road with automobiles, large, and compact, trucks of various weights, three wheeled jalopies that move both cargo and people, all manner of two wheelers, including bicycles, and last, but not least, pedestrians.  Do you know those computer games, where things are coming at you from all directions, at various frequencies, and at various speeds?  Traffic in the city is almost exactly like that.   There is no way I could absorb that much information, much less process it to make good decisions.

The blind spot, which the DMV manuals warn you about, is alive and well here in India.  Only, in the Indian version, that spot can hold several motor cycles, each of which may be up to something totally different, and of course unpredictable.   After narrowly missing one gentleman who as on my left, as I tried to pass a car, I started to turn my head left to look over my shoulder before swerving left.   But this turned out to be a mistake too.   In that one moment, when I took my eyes off the road in front of me, two vehicles (a scooter and a three wheeled rickshaw), out of God knows where, suddenly appeared in front of my vehicle.   I think they must have come from my right.   Is there a blind spot on the driver’s side of the car?  How the hell am I supposed to look at both sides of my car at once?

As if this was not enough, our car, something called a Skoda, threw me another curve.  The driver’s side mirror is one of those jobs where “objects in the mirror are closer than they appear”.  What the holy F?   In my other incarnation, intrepid weekend American road warrior, I almost exclusively rely on the rear view mirror and the driver’s side mirror, to get an accurate picture of what is beside, and behind me.    I rely on them to estimate distances so I can move left and right on the road.  When I realized that the driver’s side mirror was deceiving my eyes, another piece of my mental arsenal against traffic, died.

So at the moment, every change of lanes, every attempt to pass a vehicle, is a slightly nerve wracking struggle.  I simply am not able to accurately judge the distance between me and vehicles behind me.  I cannot relax.  I cannot take my eyes off the front of the car.  Driving is a deliberate act now.  You know how you get from place to place, and you can’t remember how you did it.  It is not that way when driving in India.  Not for me.  Not now.  It might happen some day, I suppose.

Here is the perfect tell-tale sign of how hard the driving was – usually, when I myself drive somewhere the first time, I remember the route.  I was so focused on just keeping the car going safely, that I had a hard time keeping track of the route we were taking.  I can’t remember how to get to my aunt’s house in Vepery.

Can I ever “go gentle into that good night”?

Driving at night threw up its own surprises.   The ECR is not a divided road.  It is just an old-fashioned two strips of blacktop, separated by a thin line of white paint.   Very few people on the ECR seemed to know that vehicles have a low-beam.   You haven’t lived till you find yourself squeezed between a slow moving three-wheeled rickshaw on your left, and a pair of high-beamed headlights coming towards you on the right, which incidentally, also completely blinds you.    I passed that auto-rickshaw on pure faith.   I could not see a goddamned thing.  And this is pretty much the norm. My brother-in-law called it “gambling”; “night driving is gambling”, he said.

Two motor cycles coming in the opposite direction at more or less the same speed, look no different than a single automobile with its headlights on.   Until suddenly one of the lights splits off.  I felt like I was in the middle of Close Encounters of the Third Kind; I cannot trust my eyes anymore.

My favorite characters were the vehicles that decide to drive down your own lane.  In the opposite direction.   They have given up all pretense of adopting the civilizing influences of modern road rules, and there was something refreshing about that.  Well, why the hell not?

In the middle of all this, there was a herd of cows standing absolutely still in the middle of my lane.   My Dad finally pipes in – “the cows can be very dangerous at night”, he says.  After everything I had seen my two legged brethren do all day, he was blaming the cows.  I, actually like the cows.   I can count on the cows. They don’t make any sudden moves.  And they never honk at me. My short fuse went off, and  I turned my head left to let my Dad have a piece of my mind, but just at that moment, an enterprising Pizza Hut delivery man on a scooter materialized in front of the car.  And on we went.

I tried another short drive yesterday night, to a local grocery store and back.   It was quite unsettling, and I gave up on a longer trip we had to make later in the night, to the airport.  The problem with night driving is exactly the opposite of the problem I have with day time driving.  At night, I can see precious little.   My low beams are negated by the oncoming high beams.   The traffic is just as dense and varied.   I came perilously close to running over pedestrians that were crossing the road at random, because I did not see them until I was close to them.  At night, I don’t have enough information, early enough, to make good decisions.  In the day, I am overwhelmed with information, which has the same deleterious effect.

How does our driver do it? Day, or night, he drives like he owns the road. He must be seeing exactly what I am seeing, or not. The data he perceives has to be the same that I am picking up, right? How is he making the decisions he makes, behind the wheel?

I am also told that much of long distance road travel, primarily buses, and trucks, moving people, and cargo, happens at night. How do they do it?

Sister, what is that on your head?

The most intriguing sight on the Chennai roads is women, on two-wheelers, and on foot, wearing a sort of head-gear that I first saw in Pune a couple of years ago, and which now seems to ubiquitous; from big city Chennai to small town Nellore. They wrap their heads with what seems like their duppattas, in a manner that looks like the top of a hijab.  Everything is covered but their eyes.  

Perhaps this is just to protect their faces and hair from the heat and the dust.   However, to my eyes it comes across as some hitherto unanticipated confluence of Islamic chic, plain inventiveness to deal with the grime of everyday life, and an unapologetic expression of female power.

Imagine a woman fully living and fighting in this world, but who does it in some modern variation of the hijab. You perceive clearly that there is a whole human being in there, but she only gives you her face, and often only her eyes, to deal with. I can’t explain it, but it seems a daunting task to me, and demanding it of us seems an tremendous act of confidence on their part.

I remember security personnel in the Kuala Lumpur airport, clad in trousers and long-sleeved shirts, and a scarf tightly wrapped around their heads.  They left me wonder-struck, and not a little intimidated. Would I measure up?

Two kinds of heat in India

I’ve run into two kinds of heat.

Chennai, and Nellore specialize in the humid variety. Simply go outside and stand still; in less than 5 minutes you are drenched in sweat. The air is so thick, and oppressive, every move I make seems like it is happening in first gear. It is so exhausting, and relentless, that within a few minutes of waking up in the morning, I just want to curl up into a ball, and give up. 

Cudappah, on the other hand, was blazing hot, and gloriously dry. The heat is sharp, and bracing, exactly like a stiff cold winter wind. They said it gets so hot that steam rises up from the ground. I was impressed, momentarily, before I remembered that I saw something like that in Wichita once. You stand outside in sandals, and the feet burn. Is the heat coming up from the ground, through the footwear, or am I being roasted from the top? No matter, I found I liked this weather – it slapped me out of my lethargy; it made want to get up and fight back.

Which of these two is Kansas? I realize now I’ve never really had to deal with the elements in Kansas. Or perhaps I’ve just been escaping the summer months somehow.