A World of Disorder

by Kenneth Champeon, Sep 25, 2003 | Destinations: India / Mumbai

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote in a February 2003 editorial that the world could be divided into a World of Order and a World of Disorder. So pleased was Friedman by this asinine scheme that he then placed India within the World of Order. Surely, I thought, he could not have spent much time in India, by which I mean the India outside of the limousines and five-star hotels befitting his eminence.

Former American ambassador to India John Kenneth Galbraith described the country as a "functional anarchy." If India had laws of operation, they were hardly obvious. Yet despite lawlessness India persevered. Bombay was held together not by laws but by the practically infinite patience of its citizens. Not order, but a tolerance of disorder prevailed.

An Indian friend told me, "Wherever there's a traffic jam you're sure to find an Indian policeman." They did not alleviate traffic; they aggravated it. Standing in clusters on the street corners, they blew their whistles languidly, as if protesting the very existence of cars.

Communication was equally chaotic. Agendas were afterthoughts. Meetings began without announcement and ended without conclusion: often they appeared to be mere pretexts for devouring sweets and tea. People talked all at once; some mumbled to themselves. He who shouted the loudest or talked the longest often won. A group of fifty people would assemble out of nothing more than whispered messages. Bulletin boards were neglected; PA systems mumbled and squealed.

Communication was often a one-way street. One day I asked a teacher where Uttar Pradesh was. Instead of answering, she hauled out a map and began to lecture me on Indian geography. Bangladesh, she said, used to be East Pakistan. I knew this. This, she said, is where Mumbai is. I knew this too. The dialectic involved not so much dialogue as the exchange of prepared lectures.

Critical information was always lacking, contradictory, or late. Everything happened at the last minute. Holidays were announced as little as a day before. Classes juggled teachers or went entirely without. The syllabus, such as it was, always changed. Planning was folly.

My American colleague and I intended one day to observe some classes at a boys' school. But instead we were asked to teach them. I was swept into a room full of students who immediately began yelling nonsensical questions and shoving their textbooks in my face. "Explain angles!" "What is log base 2 of 64?" "Explain (3.6)*7!" As soon as I began to answer, more questions rained down on me like stones. When the bell rang the students converged on me and petitioned me for autographs. All this, I was told, was normal.

Once I went to my geometry class and the students there said that it had changed to algebra. A schedule on the wall confirmed this. Their algebra teacher denied it. So I taught geometry. The following week the students said the same thing. Then their algebra teacher arrived and said that it had been geometry last week because she had attended a science exhibition. She asked, "Do you want to do geometry?" Teaching by caprice.

Communication was often indirect. Students acted as messengers between teachers, even when the students were supposed to be in class. Once a student told me to go see my supervisor; I dropped what I was doing and raced to her office. She stood up with a smile and shook my hand. "Happy birthday!" she said. This was awfully kind of her, but my birthday was still weeks off.

Activity was ceaseless in India but its purpose was often absent or confused. And it was difficult to get a straight Yes or No answer rather than a movement of the head that could mean Yes; Whatever; Thank You; or I Fully Understand, but Disagree. How to know if a student understands, or a teacher approves?

Corruption was another indicator of entropy. India at the time was judged to be among the top ten most corrupt nations in the world. The father of a friend of mine who worked in the shipping business paid 10000 rupees in bribes every day -- three times the teachers' monthly salaries. My washerwoman asked me for a watch as a Diwali present. "Baksheesh," she said. I didn't give it to her, so she withheld articles of my clothing. My mailmen paid me a visit on Christmas Day. Standing outside of my door, the three of them chimed, "Merry Christmas!" They handed me a homemade Christmas card. It read, "Merry Christmas from your Malabar Hill mailmen, bringing you in a timely fashion your letters, magazines, etc." Inside the card was a list of names followed by amounts, up to 500 or 600 rupees. The mailmen thoughtfully handed me a pen. If I did not give them money, they would withhold some of my mail; if I did, months-old mail would suddenly appear. When I paid my milkman only for milk and delivery, he frowned. "Commission," he said: the English baksheesh. When I told my friends that my telephone had been disconnected, they assured me, "We know which people to talk to, who to pay off."

Some of my Indian friends refused to pay bribes. But bribes are difficult to distinguish from tips or gifts. Others defended the system: without corruption nothing would get done. And the same people who congratulated me for defying the mailmen would pay a train conductor a suspect "reservation charge" without a second thought.

There is a phrase to describe the Indian defiance of time: IST, Indian Stretchable Time. "Punctuality," I heard it said, "is not a national virtue." Functions started hours late. People arrived and left like molecules across permeable membranes. All of my students would arrive for drama practice 30 minutes late at the outside. After a while I stopped being punctual myself: when in Rome.

The trick was to enjoy yourself; to show impatience was to miss the point. One day I attended an interschool talent competition. When I arrived at the scheduled time of 10:30, I was told that the competition would not begin for another hour: electricity was still out due to the rains. So I chatted with students and teachers; I struck up a conversation with an architect. When at noon the function actually began, I had almost entirely lost track of time.

Some people tried to be punctual. Indian educators stressed punctuality just as much as American educators do; students considered it a virtue equivalent to cleanliness, diligence, respect, and so on. But because infrastructure was always throwing up obstacles, tardiness was punished inconsistently when it was punished at all.

The unreliability of the Indian infrastructure quickly lowered my expectations. I was no longer bothered when my hot-water heater self-destructed in a puff of black smoke; or when I sat in honking buses locked in traffic; or when I picked up my phone and heard a busy signal or voices from Madhya Pradesh; or when computer monitors scrambled their contents unexpectedly. I was a little spooked when my clock began to run backwards. But I got used to that too.

For 11 out of the 20 weeks I was in Bombay, my telephone was useless. By the time service was restored, I had all but forgotten my reasons for wanting it. I even began to enjoy the isolation. And the telephone debacle taught me volumes about the infamous Indian bureaucracy. I met "Sub-divisional Control Engineers" and people with no obvious title. I visited "first-floor" inquiry desks that appeared on the fourth floor. I marveled at the endless stacks of ledgers characterizing the Indian workplace. I offered a bribe. And at last I learned that I was being ignored because I was a foreigner. Some people suggested that the phone had been disconnected because I had left Bombay for three weeks. Finally I was told that a stop order had been put on my phone number somewhat earlier. A year earlier, in fact. It had taken a full year for the order to be implemented.

During a ride on a Bombay commuter train my wallet disappeared. It contained 900 rupees and a Visa card. At that time the telephone had been disconnected for two weeks, so to get a new card I had to resort to a so-called ISD phone booth that charged 80 rupees per minute for a phone call to America. But the booth refused to connect toll-free numbers.

I began to fear that I might be trapped in India. If telephone service can be interrupted for eleven weeks, I reasoned, what is preventing the airlines from collapsing? It didn't help that the government had recently "dissolved": the Congress had withdrawn its support of the reigning United Front government. India had no ruler. The Times of India ran articles entitled "Who runs India?" The question was profound.

My colleague and I ultimately built a shrine around our phone. Placing the phone on a table, we surrounded it with a flower garland, statues of Siva and Ganesh, a basket of flowers, two miniature metallic mosques, trays of clarified butter and chili. Every day my colleague would pray and light a stick of sandalwood incense. We had learned the source of superstition: helplessness. Losing a telephone, we had found God.

What once appeared as aberrations began to fit into a pattern. India was coming apart at the seams. Posters peeled off the walls. Teachers juggled and cursed squealing microphones before throwing them away altogether. Ten matches would break or extinguish themselves before one would light. Ceiling fans whisked papers off tables; letters at the post office blew to the floor. India had different laws of physics.

The chaos was not always comical. One day a school administrator -- a buxom South Indian with long silvery hair in a broad braid, usually a strong and merry woman -- appealed for help. Giving only four days' notice, one of her star teachers had left for, the administrator admitted, "a better school." Someone had hit a parent on the nose with a cricket bat; someone else had hit a student. The room was palpably somber. Everyone seemed to be very tired of India.

One day my students asked to be excused from drama practice. A friend of theirs had died and they wanted to attend her funeral service. I rushed through faces smudged with tears to the staff room to learn what had happened. A teacher told me briskly that the girl had died of hepatitis. Neither I nor many of the other teachers could even recall the girl: there were so many. Still, I wanted to scream. Hepatitis! What a waste!

During Diwali vacation, a student of the boys' school was brutally murdered after being molested. I wouldn't learn of it until I returned to Bombay, but I was told it had been big news: the Times had covered it. But it was soon forgotten.

India is often mistakenly thought to be a nonviolent society. But India is not Gandhi. True, throughout history India has been a fairly passive and frequently conquered country; in some ways Indians are gentle and know how to "live and let live". But India too has its nationalism, its enemies, its wars. The press ridiculed Pakistan's domestic violence, its theocracy; its cricket fans were portrayed as rock-throwing monsters. One teacher told me outright that she hated Pakistanis. But she was clearly just mouthing the words: I don't think she was capable of hating anything.

With my students I watched the movie Border, about the Indo-Pak wars of the 1970s. In one scene, an Indian army officer hesitates to finish off a vulnerable Pakistani. "Kill him!" the crowd roared. "Shoot him!" Horrified, I looked at my female students. Wearing flashy clothes and makeup, their mouths filled with samosas and Pepsi, they too shouted, "Kill him! Shoot him!"

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