Back in March, when I was still interviewing with International Justice Mission, I had a phone call with my future boss in India. I called from San Francisco at 8:30 PM, 9:00 AM in Chennai. The conversation went well. I asked about my role, the team, the projects. He explained that I would be one of three interns working within the communications department. There were separate roles for each of us. One leaned toward writing, one toward media, one toward development. It would take a few months to feel comfortable here and during that time they’d evaluate my strengths and interests. Eventually I’d grow into the role that suited me best. I told him that sounded great.
Fast-forward six months: September.
On the first day in the Chennai office, I again sat down with future boss. He placed his palms flat on the desk. “Alright. It’s the end of the year and we have quotas that we need to meet. All of the yearlong projects need to get finished and we need to do this before the end of Q4. Normally we have three interns in the department. Unfortunately, right now, you’re the only intern we’ve got. Those other two jobs still need to get done which means you’ll be doing all three. Also, I’m transitioning out of the role of Director of Communications and you’ll have a new boss. She starts next week.”
“Welcome to India.”
We walked across the hall to a bank of empty desks, most of them piled with cardboard boxes. On the desk by the copy machine I saw a small black monitor with a chunky plastic frame, a radiator-sized PC, and a waffle iron of a keyboard.
“This is the design computer. It’s the only machine in the office with the design software on it.”
I imagined that classic movie scene where a crusty old mechanic (“I’m retired, kid”) pries open the barn door and yanks the white sheet off his race car, gleaming in a ray of light, “Welp... there she is.”
It felt just like that.
Except this wasn’t a race car. It was “the design computer”, which you might compare to a race car if the race car was also built by Hewlett Packard. In China. 10 years ago.
“Welp... there she is.”
* * *
When you step outside the familiar confines of the good ol’ U.S. of A., there’s this immediate sense that things are just ever so slightly different. And not the Wikipedia factsheet items like “different language, different food, different climate.” I mean the stuff that doesn’t really compete for attention in the mosaic of everyday life. The things you don’t see until you recognize that there’s another version, but different: the first whiff of air between the gangplank and the cabin door, the whine of a police siren, the color of an exit sign, the way you stick a plug in the wall—the familiar texture of things.
What I think makes this experience remarkable is that, through nuance or plainness or sheer magnitude, the differentness in a foreign place tends to defy observation (at least for a little while). Before you can see it, you feel it. And as you enter the terminal and herd toward customs, you begin to realize: this place is not like my place.
I love that feeling.
During the first few days in Chennai, I felt dizzy from the pure differentness of it all. Someone recommended a book about the culture and history of India called In Spite of the Gods by Edward Luce. I bought it instantly. In hindsight I think that I was looking for someone to sit me down and give me a straight answer to my growing question of “What is this place?” But there seems to be an especially small number of straight answers in India.
When I’ve spent some time overseas in the past, there’s a sense that, although these places are different, there’s also overlap, some common characteristics—distant cousins with a matching cowlick. India didn’t feel like that. It way didn’t feel like that. For a week, I clung to my book like a life-preserver. It didn’t really help with the dizziness but I did learn a bit. While reading, I came across a section describing Indian politicians as “sycophantic,” a word I needed to look up.
1. behaving or done in an obsequious way in order to gain advantage.
And while we’re at it...
1. obedient or attentive to an excessive or servile degree.
With a little more time in the country I began to see how “sycophantic politicians” might be a byproduct of a broader cultural tendency: courtesy. By this, I mean that Indian politeness is unparalleled, the stuff of legends. Even in casual interactions, everyone is addressed as either “Boss,” “Sir,” “Madam,” or in extreme cases, “Master.” It is so mannerly it feels theatrical.
For example, your common exchange with an auto rickshaw driver might follow this script:
“Hello sir. Harrington road, please? Eighty rupees? Sir, I live here. Forty rupees is fair. Sir. It’s very close. No, no, no, sir. Use the meter, sir. If you used the meter it would be only thirty rupees. Sir, you have to use the meter. It’s the law, sir. Forty is fair, sir. It’s very close, sir. Sir. I live here. OK, great, Fifty rupees. Harrington Road please, sir.”
When a driver combines this politeness with his peaceful smile and the hypnotic Indian Head Bobble, the result is a bartering exchange that both softly lulls you to sleep and grinds you down to the bone. Gentility as negotiating tactic; it’s brilliant.
Sometimes, in the midst of this theatre of courtesy, I suddenly hear my own voice and wonder to myself, “Who are these characters we’re playing?”
* * *
The vans pulled up to the office and we began to unload the boxes, carrying them up the stairs to the third floor. The communications team had just come back from a marathon of a full-day press event, hosted by International Justice Mission at a nearby college. For much of the day we’d been in the holy shelter of air conditioning but now, as we dragged cargo between the street and the office stairwell, the heavy night air seemed to hold the heat of the day.
The team had spent the past two months planning and managing the “Live Free Campaign,” a series of street theatre performances in the 32 districts of Tamil Nadu. The act, written to tell the story of bonded labor slavery, was staged by a theatre troupe comprised entirely of members of the Irular tribe, one of the most vulnerable people groups when it comes to forced labor in Southern India. This final event marked the close of the campaign and was designed to showcase the performance of the theater troupe along with a presentation of some of the broader successes of the campaign.
There were dozens of reporters, several camera crews, a few local government officials, and nearly a hundred members of the community. The agenda for the day was meticulously mapped, minute-by-minute. We arrived at the office at 6:45 AM and packed and departed for the event location by 7:30 AM. After prepping the stadium-seating lecture hall, we welcomed other NGO’s and government representatives for the start of the day’s presentations. The team hosted breakfast, lunch and—since we’re in India—ongoing breaks for hot chai.
The auditorium cycled through varying degrees of occupancy over the course of the day but when the main event of the evening approached, the room swelled. As the seats filled-up, guests began to line the perimeter and soon the aisles, which sloped to the stage. Eventually the front row filled in.
After a short introductory remark, a rear door to the room eased open and the Irular theatre troupe began to file in. A younger actor at the head of the line sang out a high melody in Tamil as the other seven members echoed in response. Each carried a thin walking stick as they worked toward the stage. With one hand shielding their eyes, they squinted toward a pretend horizon.
The performance followed the familiar story arc of so many people who have been sucked into slavery:
To cover some family need such as emergency medical care or a funeral or a wedding, the head of the family might borrow a small amount of money from the owner of some industry (often a brick kiln, rice mill, wood-cutting crew, or garment factory), promising labor in exchange for debt. The debtor leaves his home, arrives in the facility and work begins. After some period of time—days, weeks, months— the worker will inquire as to the status of his repayment. The owner, through endless manners of deceit, will tell him that well, actually, interest rates have begun to kick-in and the original amount of the loan has already increased and you should probably work longer hours and maybe if you brought your wife and children I’d let them work too so you might pay off your debt faster, and anyway you owe me money for the miserable daily meal I’ve given you and you worked only part of the day yesterday because of that gash on your hand which I bought a bandage for so I’ll add that to your debt and why don’t you just get back to work.
The debt escalates at a relentless pace and soon the worker and his family begin to suffer verbal abuse, physical beatings, and often much worse. No longer working to repay debt, the laborer has become a slave.
This act was staged in small villages and town-centers across all of Tamil Nadu. Audience members would often approach the actors afterward to reveal that they knew of a friend or relative who was currently trapped in slavery. I was told that at some performances an audience member would suddenly be overcome with emotion as they began to recognize their own suffering, mirrored in the performance. They simply did not know that they were slaves.
One week prior to the event, when I arrived in the office, the team asked me to help with the campaign report, a magazine-style document describing the work of the initiative and highlighting the results. It would be handed out to the government and press at the closing event. The communications team had discovered that I was some kind of app-iphone-design-guy so they were excited to see if I could come up with something that captured all the effort and success of the campaign.
In my corner of boxes by the printer-copier, I worked for most of the week to finish the final draft of the report. Some days, after the office had mostly emptied, I’d stay and work for a few more hours. (This was partly due to the deadline, which was a bit tighter than I’d have liked it to be, and partly due to my work ethic, which is always a bit looser than I’d like it to be.) The excitement of making my first contribution was mixed with the pressure of the project. While I worked a few more hours over the course of one week, the rest of the team had, for over two months, worked hundreds of hours and traveled thousands of kilometers as part of the campaign. All I had to do was get it in print. And not miss the deadline.
At the campaign event, as with all of their other performances, the theatre troupe spoke Tamil. I couldn’t understand the dialogue but it didn’t seem to matter. The real power of the performance was in the faces of the actors, the intensity of emotion. Despite no distinguishing costumes or set pieces, the roles of the characters were starkly evident. During one scene, the factory owner struck a laborer, yelling and slamming his cane onto the wooden stage with a loud “THWACK!” I’d anticipated the strike, as he slowly raised the cane, but the sudden intensity was startling. I jumped in my seat. Embarrassed laughter from around the room told me that I wasn’t the only one.
A few days after the event, I again stayed later at the office to finish a short write-up on the performance. The event had been a huge success, spurring articles in major national publications like The Times of India and The Hindu and adding a final extra boost to the advocacy of the Live Free campaign. I sent my draft to headquarters as the staff in D.C. were arriving for work.
My little corner of boxes was piled higher than usual with the recent addition of leftover campaign materials. As I pushed in my chair and threw my bag over my shoulder, I spied a box of “Hide ‘n Seek” chocolate chip cookies from the supply of extra campaign refreshments. I grabbed a pack for my auto ride home.
I walked downstairs and outside. The buzz of rush hour had mostly passed and hailing an auto was quicker than usual. The night was warm but the humidity was tame from a light breeze. A driver pulled up.
“Hello sir, Harrington road?”
He bobbled his head.
He nodded toward the back seat, “OK, sir. Meter.” I ducked in.
The auto pulled-out and sputtered along the road by the river. I looked out at the tropical palms and the high grass, lining the banks. Between the road and the water I could see a man and woman lying side-by-side on mats under a roof of tarpaulin and dried palms. A sacred white cow with tall, weaving horns was grazing along the road in the dark. Across the river was the green neon sign on the roof of a hotel.
It’s funny. I’ve been here only one month but familiarity is already beginning to sink in. The road. The commute. The scenery. The differentness of the air had mostly faded. Now it was only a muted backdrop to the color of the stronger scents. To look and see with newness required that I look and see and remember.
I tore open my pack of cookies and tapped the driver on his shoulder, “Sir, do you want a cookie? A biscuit?” He glanced back and held out his hand over his shoulder, “Yes sir.” I handed him a biscuit and took one for myself. “Thank you, sir.”
We zipped along in the auto, the exhaust making the “pop-pop-pop” of a muffled firecracker with the irregular rhythm of popcorn in the microwave. The driver ate his biscuit with one hand, swerving to avoid potholes and speed bumps.
As we drove—lurching from side to side and chewing biscuits—I thought of home, far away and so different. The breeze began again and passed through the open sides of the auto. I thought of the world and I shook my head at the bigness of it. I thought of my place in it and my smallness and I could do nothing but laugh. I felt grateful for it all.