Monday, August 12, 2013

Perceptions and Prejudice

19-20 June 2013

Chennai, India

I suppose I'm the sort of girl that tends to attracts strange and unwanted attention. Or is not able to fend for herself. So when it was known that I would be travelling to India on my own, my boss called the HR director of the India business to let him know that he would be personally responsible for my safety.

All sorts of advice from colleagues ensued--

"Don't take the aisle seat on a plane. Some sick Indian man would take the opportunity to squeeze past you and rub his crotch in your face."

"Don't take a taxi. Make sure its our staff wearing uniform who is driving you"

"Don't go to India. Just don't."

A lot of these comments were said loudly, in English, in the open plan office. I wonder what our colleagues from India must have thought of all this.

When we were growing up, our elders (teachers, parents etc) always painted the Baboo Singh or the Apu Neh Neh as the Boogeyman.

"If you are naughty, the Kekling will catch you, cut off your tongue and make you a beggar"

No wonder we all grew up being wary of other races.

That this trip happened just after the Delhi bus rape and a number of high profile assaults on tourists in other parts of India probably made it worse.

The only person who sang another tune was P's G, who told me to extend the trip over the weekend and visit some of the tourist spots with my colleagues. But then again, he is the same guy whose personal mission in life is to visit all the sovereign states in the world, war-torn or otherwise (He has been to Afghanistan and Chad), so he kinda has a different world view. Plus, he's an Aussie.

With all these background noise, I definitely got a little worried. I actually googled 'safety and crime rates in India'. That was how worried I was.

I packed glasses and face masks and long sleeves and long pants. I planned for my hair to be in a severe slicked back pony tail at all times. I would repel potential attackers by my formidable auntie-ness.

Paranoia followed me at my first stop.....

At the airport

I worried when I couldn't see the hotel driver at the arrivals hall.

I avoided all eye contact and walked straight ahead, until I had no choice but to ask the security guard.

He didn't speak English. Dammit!

A guy who looked like a tout started talking to me and asking me if I needed help. I was suspicious of his intentions (if only I apply the same common sense to all men problems).

In the end, he did help me find the right driver. I don't remember if I thanked him, I just wanted to be cocooned in the safety of the hotel car.

Preparing for the next day' meeting

I forgot to bring some candy for a facilitation exercise so I had to find somewhere to buy sweets. Also, I got angry at myself for being stuck in the hotel room and not exploring Amazing India, yet again. This was not the intrepid and seasoned backpacker that I pictured myself as (most likely because it isn't true anymore, if ever). So i bravely decided to venture onto the street. Such bravery!

Raintree on St Mary's Road. Its an Eco-Hotel!

The hotel was supposedly situated in a fairly upmarket residential area, but the streets were unpaved and neat piles of litter stood waiting for the garbage collector.

The newspaper agent/sweet shop was a 5 minute walk on the same street as the hotel and I was the only non-Indian on it. All eyes were following my every move as side-stepped traffic and garbage and people.

The shop was not the 7-11 that I imagined it to be. It was literally one of the now-extinct Mamak shops that my mother had bought fresh coconut milk from when I was growing up. You can't find such shops in Singapore anymore.

This one was little more than a tiny shop crammed with sachets of shampoo, cigarettes, papers and telephone cards. The shopkeeper in his dhoti peered at me curiously. Sweets were sold individually in big plastic containers, much like that ones that hold our Chinese New Year love letters.

"How much is one?"

I thought he said 100 rupees and was immediately indignant that he was just trying to fleece this obviously non-local customer. Turns out it was my deafness and each sweet was only 1 rupee. I bought 50 out of embarrassment.

At the Hotel again

Back at the hotel, my room door lock suddnely didn't work. The staff took 1 hour to fix it. I wondered if I should put a chair against the door at night to prevent would-be rapists from breaking in. While waiting, I chatted with the hotel staff, a young management trainee (are there any other kind of jobs for graduates these days?), about what he wanted to do with his career and life and why he was in Chennai. He was unfailingly polite and too apologetic, although he didn't offer me an upgrade. Between the scrapping and bowing and the "Madams" and "Ma'ams", I now I know what its like to be treated like a memsahib!

Before I knew it, I was on my way to catch the dreaded internal flight to Bengalore (I couldn't check in online and reached the airport just before the flight, so I had already resigned myself to the fate of middle row seat). I was almost ready to conclude that India was safer than I thought and that my paranoia had been unfounded.

And then. I caught sight of the pilot of the flight.....

Two words. Top. Gun.

Indian version lah! But still.

My friends call it poetic justice.

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