Sunday, May 21, 2006

Two Stories

21 May 2006
Dear Friends,
Swami Kriyananda left India a few weeks ago and is now visiting in California. At the same time, more than half of our small community in Gurgaon has also taken this opportunity to return to the United States, some to travel with Swamiji and others to attend to duties "back home". Usually we have 27-28 people living in four houses in our neighborhood but we are now down to thirteen and I leave next week for summer in America. It's kind of quiet but I rather like it for a change.

I'm sure most of you have been brought up to date on Swami's recent activities and his plans for the future so I won't repeat those here. If you haven't, visit the website. Suffice it to say that many ideas are percolating-community, school, monastery, yoga institute, orphanage, elders' home, mandir, alternative energy, outreach and more. Before he left for the States, I heard him jokingly say, "At my age, things need to happen right away or not at all." While he is gone, those of us left behind are actively looking for land and for another neighborhood house to accommodate the additional souls we expect in the fall-Dharmaraj & Dharmini and Durga & Vidura. I'm guessing others will come in Swami's wake and I suspect the monastery will grow too. Just last weekend I met one such likely candidate in Mumbai. And as for land, possibilities keep appearing. Wayne and some Indian friends are looking at 25 acres about 15 kilometers from here this week and there are two or three other possibilities.

Rather than report news you may know, I'll tell you two stories that encapsulate the Indian experience for me.


Story #1 - The Men in the Elevator
Vijay Girard is an old friend from my early days at Ananda who now lives in our monastery. It was he who went with Haridas to establish the first Ananda community in Sacramento in 1978. Reuniting with so many like Vijay, Haridas and others has been one of the joys I've especially welcomed here. Vijay has been with Ananda India for about a year, moving to Gurgaon from Las Vegas.

When Vijay arrived, he was given the assignment of promoting Swami's "Material Success Through Yoga Principles" correspondence course and in that capacity he and a couple of Indian helpers have an office on the ground floor of the ashram from where they make sales calls, arrange workshops and develop study groups based upon the course. From what I gather, it's going pretty well. As manager of this "business", Vijay holds an employment visa rather than the typical tourist visa most of us have. This is a good thing because it means that he doesn't have to leave the country every six months, can have a bank account, gets certain perks of Indian residency, and very importantly, he can have an Indian drivers' license and legally own a motorcycle and/or a car. In Vijay's case, he has one of each.

Actually, I'm rather envious of Vijay and his vehicles. His motorcycle is a brand-new, 150 cc model, made in India and it only cost about $800. A Honda version costs a couple of hundred more and I'm kind of tempted should I ever get an employment visa. As for the car, well, that's another matter and where this story begins.

The thing about a foreigner buying a car in India is that you have to be prepared for the paperwork needed to get legal title and to have it registered. And believe me, paperwork is what India does well. Think Department of Motor Vehicles on a bad day and multiply. Around and around you go, office to office. "No sir, that's not possible. You must first see so and so." At each stop, a small fee is extracted and I seriously think the purpose of it all is to generate small fees to keep an army of bureaucrats employed. The fellow who was supposed to inspect Vijay's car for safety features never even looked at it. He just collected his fee and waved. Fortunately for Vijay, he is a persistent fellow and has a good sense of humor.

A couple of weeks ago we had to do some business with a man who may be the one to revamp our website. After the meeting, Vijay wanted to stop at the Gurgaon "town offices" for the final title papers, so I went with him. We took the elevator to the fifth floor where Vijay disappeared for a half hour into a warren of cubicles while I watched the crowd in the hallway. He came out at last and together we went to a bank of windows to pay his fee. "Hello? Hello?" he intones, trying to catch someone's attention. The sign said it was office hours but no one was there and the curtains were pulled. Vijay, by now an old hand at this, walks around to the back of the office and goes in through the staff entrance to find six guys shooting the breeze, ignoring the waiting crowd. Vijay waves his papers and bothers one guy enough into taking his money and printing a receipt, thus allowing him to disappear back into the cubicles. The six guys put their feet back up and go on with their conversation while the queue outside stews. Ten minutes later Vijay emerges triumphantly with a "temporary" title in his hand. He has to go back in June for the real thing, but no matter. He is really happy because he is beginning to see light at the end of the tunnel.

Now the interesting part. We decide to take the elevator back down to the ground floor, so we push the button, wait for the door to open and get in with five other guys. Just as the door is about to close, one more man gets on board and I soon hear "beep, beep, beep, beep" coming from inside the elevator. I'm wondering, "What's that?" "Beep, beep, beep, beep" and we all stand there waiting for the doors to close. Nothing happens. The beeping continues while Man #8 stands immobile in the front, looking straight ahead. This goes on for 30-40 seconds while Vijay practices his pidgin Hindi on the guys in back. Still the elevator doesn't move. Finally, I figure it out. The elevator is overloaded and #8 knows it too, but he isn't moving. He is a very properly dressed and groomed "babu" who probably works in the building. He stares straight ahead, waiting for someone else to get out even though he was the last on and is closest to the doorway. Pretty soon, everyone else figures out the problem and starts gesticulating for him to get out but he is having none of it. His dignity demands that someone else get off. "Chalo, chalo" (Let's go!) says Vijay, but all we get is "Beep, beep, beep."

This is how matters stand for another minute or two. That's a long time if you think about it. Someone had to get out before the elevator door would close. But who? By this time a crowd has formed in the hallway, watching us and throwing in their two cents worth. Man #8, dignified and aloof, stood his ground while looking straight ahead. I was beginning to think that maybe I should get out and walk down the stairs but I wanted to see what would happen. The guys in the back of the elevator were yelling at #8 while also having an animated discussion amongst themselves.

Finally the solution came. Of the five guys in the back, one was a little older and smaller than the others. In the blink of an eye, the four bigger fellows grabbed the fifth guy and muscled him to the door as #8 moved aside. The big guys threw the smaller guy out. The poor fellow dug in his heals and resisted but the four were too much for him and out he went into the hallway, fuming and gesticulating madly. The beeping stopped, the doors closed, "Babu" continued to look straight ahead and down went the elevator. Silence reigned for two or three seconds while we all looked at one another in wonder. Then, spontaneously, everyone (except Babu) burst into hilarious laughter, as if to say "Wasn't that great?" and "Did you see the look on that guy's face?" It was the verbal equivalent of a Hindi "high-five" all the way down to the ground floor. As we got out, great friends now, the four guys in the back then began chewing out the babu and he yelled right back. I think they were really enjoying this even though it seemed as if a dust-up was brewing as Vijay and I made our out the door, headed to the pizza parlor for a well deserved lunch. Another day at the Gurgaon DMV.

Story #2: Three rupees short
Petty greed bothers me some, I have to admit it, making daily life in India a good test of my patience and non-attachment. You see it all the time--the shopkeepers' momentary hesitation as you are sized up, eyes and voice betraying the mental calculation of another inflated price. On the spot, you must now decide, "Is this really worth haggling over?" Sometimes it is, if for no other reason than principle. Often it isn't worth the time or effort and you walk away feeling fleeced again. In time, we develop strategies. Deal with those shops with which you have developed a relationship and who treat you fairly. Always ask the price before you commit to a purchase. For this advice to be useful, you need to know what the "going" price really is. When the man says "ten rupees," do you know if that is a good price or a bad one? If you know, you can then say, "Ten rupees? That's too much. I have bought the very same thing at Mr. Gupta's shop for only five. Surely you must be mistaken" Of course, it doesn't help at all to be a Westerner because that alone adds a tax of 50%, so if the purchase is significant, the best solution is to bring an Indian friend along with you.

If you deal with vendors, taxi drivers and repairmen regularly, a certain cynicism begins to creep into your consciousness when the subject of price, honesty and merchant tendencies is broached. Cynicism is a disease that gets into us when we don't pay attention or when our hearts begin to close. It is much to be avoided. Life here makes me understand why Swami wrote his course "Material Success Through Yoga Principles" in answer to an Indian doctor's question, "How can one follow dharma and still succeed in life?" Official corruption and petty greed exist in every country, but they are big problems for India from the top levels of government to the local rickshaw driver. Anti-corruption campaigns fill the newspapers and tales of bribery by this official or that abound. Indians themselves acknowledge this as a national challenge blocking their country from smoothly making a transition from an under-developed to a developed economy. As one successful, local businessman warned me, "90% of Indian businesses will cheat you." I know he was exaggerating and I can't accept those statistics, but I sometimes wonder.

With the above in my mind, a couple of weeks ago I walked to Qutab Plaza, our local "mall." It is a maze of hallways that can be quite confusing for a new visitor. I seem to make a fresh discovery whenever I browse the shops and on this particular visit, I was looking in the windows when I spied a small grocery I hadn't noticed before. Stepping inside I thought, "I should buy something from this man now that I'm here." Remembering that a few days earlier I had wanted raisons, I asked if he had some but received a blank look in reply. "Dried grapes" I said. The man's face lit up as he proceeded to find a bag on the shelves. Forty-five rupees was the marked price and I gave him a fifty rupee note, receiving a coin in change. We exchanged pleasantries, I left his shop, made my way across the street and began my walk home.

It was a hot day, well over 100 degrees, and I had put a block and a half behind me when I heard someone crying out, "Sir! Sir! Oh sir!" I turned around and saw the shopkeeper running to catch up. "What in the world," I thought. Panting and in a sweat, he held a five rupee note in his extended hand. "What's this?" I asked. "Sir, I gave you the wrong change and I wanted to catch you before you left." I reached into my pocket and pulled out the coin he had given me in his shop. Sure enough, it was a two rupee coin instead of a five. I hadn't noticed but somehow he had become aware of it. He insisted on making things right so I made the exchange with a warm "thank you." He pronamed and returned to his store while I journeyed home.

Three rupees is not much, maybe seven cents, but it was very important to the shopkeeper that it be returned and the transaction be conducted properly. I thought, "Would an American shopkeeper run a block and a half in the hot sun for a dime to make things right?" Hmmm. It was a good reminder/rebuke to my creeping negativity. If you look for goodness, you will find it. If you expect the opposite, you will find that too. India is a land of unique individuals and a land of extremes--color and taste, sounds and smells, hot and cold, compassion and indifference, greed and generosity. As soon as you think you have it figured out, it surprises you, often in a charming way.