Notes from abroad: India

Aug. 9, 2012, 2:27 a.m.

Although I have learned many things while interning abroad in India this summer, one of the most unique — and important, in my opinion — is the ability to discern between different types of stares.

There’s the standard double take; I get that from everyone in Chennai, the city in which I’m working. There’s also the way auto-rickshaw drivers widen their eyes when they catch sight of a moneymaking opportunity, the disapproving glares from older women and the I-just-spotted-a-Western-sex-goddess ogles from young men.

Chennai, in the state of Tamil Nadu, is one of India’s most conservative and least touristy cities. It’s got the heat of the tropics and the world’s second longest beach — a strange boast, but Chennai is proud of its garbage-lined coastline. However, even if they clean up the beach, the 60 percent alcohol tax and early-to-bed bars (most close at 11 p.m.) are going to prevent this city from becoming a spring break destination. The city is sometimes described as India’s Detroit, as it’s an auto-manufacturing hub. Everyone is here because it’s where the jobs are, not because they like the city.

The same goes for me. I’m an intern for the Institute for Financial Management and Research, a company that runs rural financial institutions. I make 300 rupees a day, which is about six dollars. Food is cheap, the company is also paying for housing and Stanford bought my plane ticket, so it really isn’t as much of a terrible economic situation as it seems.

The three other American interns (two from Stanford, one from Dartmouth) and I spend our workdays on the 10th floor of an air-conditioned office building. But to get to that office building, we walk along a refuse-filled canal and cross four directions of traffic to reach the company shuttle. The distance covered is fairly small, but the walk can take anywhere from five to 20 minutes, depending on the level of aggression in your street-crossing technique.

The sights, sounds and smells of the street are overwhelming: passengers hanging out of buses, beggars curled up and fast asleep, the stench of human excrement, honking cars and motorbikes and trash everywhere. Though they are rarer, there are pleasant sensations in the streets as well: the smell of sambar (spicy lentil stew served with every meal), windows full of Indian sweets, the scent of the jasmine flowers in women’s hair and the semi-silence that fills the streets before 7 a.m. or after 9 p.m.

To Chennai’s credit, it’s the safest place I’ve visited in the developing world. There’s the risk of getting hit by a motorcycle, but I don’t feel as if someone is looking for the opportunity to seize my purse. I walked home with another female intern at 10 p.m. a few nights ago, and though three different people stopped us to tell us it was unsafe to be out so late, the fact that they seemed so legitimately concerned for our safety was reassuring.

But no matter what I do — wear kurtis (long tunics) instead of Western clothes, straighten my curly hair, learn a few words of Tamil — I will attract gapes and stares. And in this country there are enough surprising, amusing and cringe-inducing scenes to make me forget my manners and stare back at them.

—  Anna Schickle

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