Chennai Journal
Sunday, September 25, 2005
A Day at Work
Several people have asked me to write about working here. I've been reluctant to put too much in writing about work, but also realize that since it's the main reason we're here, I can't avoid it altogether. So here's a typical day in the life ...

Two or three days a week, I get up around 5:15 and walk over to the Madras Club where I walk five or six rounds at the track (the track is 500 meters). The track backs up on the Adyar River, and on most mornings, as soon as it gets light, the rowers from the Madras Boat Club--on the other side of our apartment building--are gliding down the river. A few days ago, I even saw a crew of women, which I think must be quite unusual. The birds are absolutely raucous at this hour as well. When I succeed at getting "mind over mattress", it's a great way to begin the day.

I walk back to the apartment where Leela has breakfast waiting--usually yogurt, a bowl of papaya, and a piece of toast and coffee. About 6:30 I leave the apartment for work. Antony, the driver, is waiting at the gate for me in the Ford Endeavour (a sport utility vehicle that looks a bit like an Explorer). The ride in takes about 50 minutes in the morning, and goes past the airport on a road called the GST Road to Maramalai Nagar, the town where we have our plant. This road is an absolute microcosm of humanity---cows, autorickshaws, cars, buses, lorries, and motorcycles all sharing the same space--and passes through several towns. Although I often do work in the car or read the newspaper, sometimes I still can't resist just watching this tableau, which never fails to contain some small, odd tidbit of culture---one morning a group of women dressed in identical orange saris were walking along the side of the road, on their way to a place near Bangalore (several hours drive) for a pilgrimage.

Our plant is an oasis in the middle of this chaos. Surrounded by gardens and palm trees, there is a long and pleasant walk into the administration building. Women from the surrounding village are employed to keep up the gardens, and flowers that would be annuals in North America flourish here all year round. One of our safety challenges is getting these women to wear shoes--it's a constant battle. The grounds are regularly sprayed for snakes; more than annoyance, the snakes crawl into the plant and if they get into the machinery can cause a lot of damage.

Like any office, the day may include several meetings, including audio meetings with our regional headquarters in Bangkok. But one nice thing is that in the morning, the canteen staff brings me fruit and a glass of either thandu (banana stem juice) or sweet lime juice to make all those meetings more palatable. On some days, I also visit our IT operation in central Chennai---usually timing these trips for the beginning or the end of the day because of the long haul to and from the plant. As a member of the operating committee, I participate in all the key business decisions and programs---ranging from approving a marketing or promotional plan to reviewing the annual business plan and financial status. This is probably the most interesting part of the job, for it involves learning about the whole business, rather than just operating in one function. But I keep busy in the functional work, too---HR manages everything from the usual recruiting, performance management, labor relations, safety, career development, and policy setting to overseeing the buses that transport most of our employees to and from work. In a country where vehicle production has only just passed the 1 million mark, most employees do not own a car. In addition, I have to sign a gazillion papers every day---everything from letters for visa applications for business travelers to employment offers and purchasing requisitions.

On some days I might also get invited to be the "chief guest" at a plant celebration or competition. On Friday, for example, we had awards for the best kaizen projects in the trim and final assembly area. I make a short speech and hand out the gifts. I've learned a few words of Tamil for these occasions, such as "Vanakkam" which means "hello". The employees really appreciate this and always clap and cheer loudly whenever I make the attempt.

The end of the day is usually not until at least 6:30, and often later, and it may already be dark by the time I get on the road. Although sometimes I make phone calls to the States or turn on the backseat light and do a Sudoku puzzle (http://www.sudoku.com), sometimes I'm just beat and take a nap. The trip is usually about double the ride in, although on a lucky day we hit a sweet spot in the traffic and make it in an hour and ten or fifteen minutes. A couple of hours of relaxation, and it's time to go to bed.
Sunday, September 18, 2005
Indian English
I've learned a lot of new words since coming to India. Indian English is a combination of old British English and local common sense. I find some of these words rather infectious, and I fear they may be creeping into my vocabulary permanently. Here's a lexicon of some of the more common ones:

"Do the needful" this phrase is found in most official correspondence asking someone to do what is necessary to accomplish a task.
"Ground reality" what's happening at the grassroots, what real people are having to deal with.
"Prepone" opposite of postpone. This is one of my favorites.
"Intimate" (used as a verb), as in "we will intimate when we are ready to consider your application." Loosely translated, means to indicate or inform.
"Eve teasing" harassment of women.

"Good name" polite for name, as in "what is your good name, please?"
"Stooling" running for office.
"Load shedding" power outage or brownout. In Chennai and other cities with power shortages, it is a regular occurrence to decrease the voltage supplied to households during peak usage hours.
"Flyover" overpass.
"Batchmate" classmate; person from the same graduating year.
"Head bath" a bath that includes washing the hair.
"Updation" noun for updating, e.g. "updation of records." Also used with "upgrade."
"Mixie" blender.
"Brinjal" Indian eggplant.
"Dry grapes" raisins.
"Capsicum" pepper (e.g. green pepper).
"Lamb" goat (at least in Tamil Nadu).
"Resume" same meaning (curriculum vitae) but pronounced the like the verb, "re-zoom"
"Would-be" fiance
All of these are heard and read in daily parlance. But my absolute favorite phrase is one I learned from Leela:
"Get upping," as in "What time is Madam get upping?"

Sunday, September 11, 2005
Idli and Dosa...

I haven't written much about the food here, and it's probably high time that I did. A month of vegetarian cuisine, punctuated by an occasional meal with fish, is about to come to an end as the Carnivore (otherwise known as Marty) returns to Madras tomorrow morning from a month in the States. He made one last run to Costco to stock up on packaged corned beef, but alas--they were out.

The two staples of South Indian cuisine are dosa--rice and lentil (dal) pancakes-- and idli, which are made from similar mix but are thicker dumplings or cakes. South Indians eat them for breakfast, lunch or dinner, but I confess I haven't progressed to eating anything other than fruit and yogurt for breakfast. Leela (who's back ---I'll write about that in a separate post) makes both of these often. Above, you can see what a dosa looks like. Idli are steamed in a special pot with little depressions that you put the idli mix in. They're a bit more healthy than dosa, which are lightly fried. Dosa are eaten with the hands---you tear off a bit of the pancake, and roll it or dip in the sauces and vegetables that accompany it.

The sauces and vegetables (and yes, you can get meat as well) for both dosa and idli come in myriad varieties. Sambar is a spicy lentil sauce (it's the orange stuff in the yellow bowl above) , and dosa can also be served with various fillings such as mashed potatoes. In restaurants, dosa may be brought to you in a huge roll-- the ones served at the Madras Club (for 55 rupees, which is on the high side) are a good one and half feet long.

To make dosa and idli from scratch, it's best to have something called a wet grinder, which pulverizes the rice and lentil mixture that you've soaked. But many cooks, including Leela, buy a ready made mix that's available in any grocery store. There are also mixes for the sambar and other sauces, but Leela makes these herself using various spices, vegetables and lentils. As lentils are the main protein for vegetarians here, they're used in a variety of cuisine and come in many colors and shapes.

Personally, I prefer dosa to idli, though I like both of them. Usually, you'll see idli listed first (idli-dosa not dosa-idli). I'm not sure why that is, but it clearly isn't alphabetical!

If you're interested in trying your hand at either of these, see the link below for some recipes. Of course you can also just "Google" idli dosa recipes and it will bring up a number of other recipes as well.



Sunday, September 04, 2005
A World Away
The U.S. seemed very far away this week, with the disintegration of New Orleans filling both the T.V. and print news here as elsewhere around the world. My relatives are safe, though my 92 year old aunt refused to leave her home (about 60 miles outside New Orleans) until the extended power outage finally forced the situation. Fortunately, my dad (her younger brother) is not aware enough to understand that she was in danger and to worry. A great American city lies in ruins. My first visit to New Orleans was when I was only 19 years old---my aunt took me there when I visited her for a week on a college break. Very sad---and suffering and chaos that somehow we are used to having occur outside our borders, but not within them.

Last week I visited Hyderabad, a medium sized city about an hour's flight north of Chennai. Like Chennai and Bangalore, it is a growing center for IT and business process outsourcing. I was impressed with the city primarily because it was much cleaner than Chennai--signs everywhere exhorting people to have pride and keep it clean, which evidently are working. Also the roads seemed more sensible and less congested. Not sure why Chennai--where garbage and debris are seen on every street--can't take a page from this book.

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