Saturday, November 14, 2009

Monsoon Mice and a Philosophy of Hardship

The rain is pouring so hard outside I can hardly hear. The power just went out, but I am using laptop battery and a USB cellular modem, so I can just continue to type away. Handy.

I arrived yesterday back in Thanjavur where I spent 4 months between March and June of this year, and before that 10 months in 2007. I kept my apartment here, paid 2 months advance rent to the landlord, and paid another 2 months rent through my friend S. when I decided to postpone my departure from the US. It's easy to do when the rent is Rs. 1000/month, which comes to between $20 and $25 per month depending on the exchange rate.

The place is kind of shabby, but it's home. When I arrived yesterday, I discovered a mouse (or mice) had built a nest behind where I had leaned my mattress against a wall. They had chewed through the plastic cover of the mattress and chewed through other things like paper towels, newspaper, and dragged other assorted garbage into the pile. The entire place was filled with dust, dirt, mouse droppings, leaves blown in and spider webs. I should have expected something like this. I expected it to be dirty, but the mouse issue added a lot of ick to the process of cleaning up.

The rain sort of seeps in through the ceiling, though it does not drip, the ceiling gets damp. In heavy rain, parts of the roof in the kitchen seem to drip. Everything is so damp, when I went to light a candle, the matches would hardly strike, or they'd strike and go out because the wood is damp. The leaking roof/ceiling is an issue, but it's not the end of the world. I sort of think it's part and parcel of the territory, and living in such cheap accommodations. I could probably spend twice as much money per month, and have ceilings that weren't damp. But I guess this seems like a fair exchange.

The power is still out and though I conveniently still have my laptop and internet connection, I inconveniently can't use my electric stove, electric rice cooker or electric kettle. When I was here for my last long research stint, I got a canister of cooking gas for cooking, but getting it was a huge hassle, so since I came back last time for only a few months, I decided not to bother with that and bought the electric stove. Maybe now I'll get one again. Or at least see about getting it. It'd be nice to cook dinner even when the power's out.

There are few generalizations I can draw about India. Whenever anyone asks "What's India like?", my best answer is to say it is so diverse that it covers the entire spectrum, in any sense you can think of. That is the only generalization I can make, that it's almost impossible to make any sort of generalized statement at all, and be even reasonably accurate.

But there is one other somewhat generalizable thing in my experience: India is hard. It's a hard place to be, hard place to live, hard place to get things done. It's hard, even given what you might call the relative advantage of being from the US, of having greater resources relative to most of the population. Getting home phone and broadband DSL internet connection was so hard last time, this time I decided not to bother. The USB cellular connection is handy in its own ways, but still frustrating. Both the pre-paid and post-paid SIM cards I was using the last time I was here expired, and I have to make a new application for a "new connection" complete with a passport sized photograph, photocopy of my rental agreement, and other "proofs" of local residence.

I have to re-register with the police, a process that takes almost a full day every time, with forms and official form-filler-outers, who type in the forms on ancient, pre-independence typewriters with carbon copy paper between sheets. I will then photocopy those forms in quadruplicate, submit multiple passport-sized photographs, and submit them to the police to rubber stamp, even though I was just here, and still have the old documents, and the only thing that's changed is the visa number and expiration date.

But here's the thing. As much as I complain about these difficulties. As much as I despise the bureaucracy, the multiplicates and the passport sized photographs, I enjoy the challenge. I enjoy the challenge that every day brings. I like the feeling that I've accomplished something when I manage to negotiate my way through labyrinthine bureaucratic processes, and come out the other side with an internet connection, or a cooking gas cylinder. I feel like I've won.

And when I think about how easy it is to do everything in the US... How quickly paperwork is dealt with, and forms submitted electronically, and how gas just comes to your house, through a pipe, along with water, electricity, and all the other amenities... I wonder if maybe it's all too easy.

Of course, after a while I will come to miss living day-to-day without the challenge of power-outages, without the bureaucracy. It does get exhausting after a while. I still wonder, if the ease with which things come to people in America, if the lack of challenge and struggle in daily life isn't actually the Achilles heel of American culture. I don't know what to say, really, about doomsday scenarios -- books and movies supply them aplenty. But I can't help but notice that people who are accustomed to more challenge, more hardship in daily life than your average middle class American seem to cope with it better, even when they're confronted by the bigger, more insurmountable challenges the world has to offer.


Jen of A2eatwrite said...

I think you make an excellent point here. I, too, had that feeling of "winning" each time I was able to get through another step in life in Russia.

And isn't this what the term "growing soft" is all about? If you're faced with physical challenges, you get stronger; mental challenges, you figure things out more easily.

It would seem natural that if you're not challenged then you don't grow.

Gwen said...

I was thinking more about this issue last night, and I think that what you're saying is true.

In addition, I think what bothers me is the fact that people who don't have to deal with such complicated systems of bureaucracy, who don't have to go in person to the telephone office to sign up for a home telephone, or for electricity, or gas, or water, or what have you, they tend to take all those things for granted. And in taking things for granted, they sometimes begin to develop a sense of entitlement, a sense that the world should be delivered at their doorstep at the push of a button.

That sense of entitlement is a dangerous thing, on the one hand. And the fact of simply taking everything for granted, of not appreciating all that you have, I think has all sorts of psychological ramifications (though I am in no way an expert in psychology).

For instance, I think this is part of the reason why so many studies in the US seem to show that wealth is not positively correlated with happiness. (And this article at I think it's possible that the the struggle to get something that you need or want, and the sense of accomplishment you have once you've got it, is something that contributes to a general sense of happiness in life. And therefore people with too much wealth, and who struggle for nothing, and want for nothing, feel unsatisfied, and unhappy.

That's my (completely un-expert) two cents.