Non-Sanitized Pictures

It was 1pm and I couldn’t get Skype to work. Although I came to India to do my own independent research, and not work for a NGO like the other SiSA fellows, I got recruited into one. One of the people who was staying at same Airbnb as me happened to be the municipal finance manager at Janaagraha, an NGO that does work with urban planning, government, municipal finance and democratic access. When he learned what I was working on and my background he asked me if I would like to write a white paper on using green bonds to finance public transit. I agreed and thus became an intern for Janaagraha. After having written a draft of the first chapter of the paper the day before I was trying to call the people I was working with to get their feedback.

The doorbell rang. A man stood outside the door that I didn’t recognize. I immediately hit the language barrier. I stood there confused not knowing what was happening. The man called someone and after a moment of talking with them handed me the phone. Once again, I couldn’t understand what was being said to me but I managed to make out one thing in English. “Leave my house,” they said. I called my Airbnb host. He said he’d be there in a few minutes. I still had no idea what was going on. It was Thursday and my fourth day in Bangalore. I managed to make the call I was supposed to be on to get their feedback as my Airbnb host arrived and began talking to the man and started making some calls.

After I finished my call, I stood around waiting for an opportunity to ask what was going on. My Airbnb host continued to make calls and talk to the man. At one point a woman showed up and walked around the flat a little bit and then left. Finally, I was able to ask my Airbnb host what was going on. He explained to me that in Bangalore it’s standard practice to put down ten months’ rent in advance. He had made a verbal agreement with the landlord, who was “some politician,” to pay the ten months’ rent by June 2nd. Now, on May 25th she wanted the ten months’ rent or she wanted us to leave within 30 minutes so her sister could stay there. We didn’t have much of a choice in the matter. When I had arrived on Monday, he had just moved in to this apartment and there were only two beds and some wardrobes for furnishings in the entire place. Now he had brought in some more beds, some chairs, tables, a refrigerator and a sofa, and we were leaving. I packed up my things and the host packed up the other Airbnb guest’s things and we left. Fortunately, my host had another apartment which he outright owned that we moved to a few streets away.

I was perplexed by what was happening. This is something that just wouldn’t happen in the US I told him. There are lease agreements and you need an eviction notice to remove someone. “That’s why I want to go to the US,” he said. He is a doctor and is studying for some medical exams which will allow him to be a doctor and get a residency with a university in the US. I’ve told him a few things about the US and told him that he should go to U of M. Unfortunately, he won’t be able to pick which school he’ll go to, although that hasn’t stopped me from talking up U of M. At this point I’ve convinced him to visit Michigan.

Academics call something like what happened to my Airbnb host informality. In the US, we take for granted all the formal systems we have that protect us. We have the deed to the house we’ve lived for years, there are lease agreements and paperwork for everything. India doesn’t have those formalities in the same way the US does, and so situation like the one I described happen. I’m telling this story to make good on a promise of what I would bring back from India for one of my high school teachers, (I hope you are reading this AB.) He asked me for “non-sanitized pictures.” The type of images that you can only get from being there he said, not the CNN pan shot of Varanasi, where everything looks picturesque. Although make no mistake, there are plenty of picturesque parts of India.

But to present you with a more complete view of my time in India, I have to tell you about all the generosity and help I have received, which started even before I got here. One of my roommate’s parents are from India and months before I left they gave me a water bottle with a filter in it to barrow, some rupees, my roommate’s uncle’s phone number and told me to call them if I needed anything. Before I even got on the plane to go to India I chatted with a man who was from Mumbai, but had lived in New York for the past 20 years and was a distributor for Amway. Small world, Amway is headquartered near where I live. He gave me his phone number and told me to call him if I ever needed anything in India. My Airbnb host has called several cabs for me and taken me out for meals and has always paid for me. He says he would show me more of the city if he weren’t so busy with his exams. Yesterday my host’s roommate made daal and chapatti for lunch and feed me when I hadn’t even asked him to. Before I could even finish what he had already given me, he gave me more. It feels like I have so many people looking out for me.

As you read this blog, and I hope that you do and enjoy it, it would be wise for you dear reader to consider that I am not without bias. I’m not a tabula rasa. I have previous experiences and belief that shape my experience and what I rely here in this blog. I can’t really give you a complete picture of this place nor experience it in the same way that you would. For that you’ll have to see it for yourself. Here, I’ll try to show my experiences and observations that I think fit for public consumption, none of which will be without some level of editorializing. I know that I have only scratched the surface and begun to understand what it means to live here. In the interest of not making this entry any longer than what it already is, I’m going to forgo talking about the urban design I’ve seen here. I’ll try to do that next week. As for all the other things I’ve seen and experienced here, I’ll have to relay that another time. For now, these are the stories and thoughts I leave you with.

Me and my Airbnb host
Me and my Airbnb host.
A view up the street from the first apartment I was in
A view up the street from the first apartment I was in.


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Chris Olson

Chris is a sophomore planning to major in Political Science and minor in Community Action and Social Change. After graduating he hopes to attend graduate school and earn a PhD in political science to pursue a career in academia. In India he will be conducting independent research on urban planning. Chris plans to examine the master plans of Bangalore and Amritsar and learn what values are motivating planning in the two respective cities and why those motivations are present. From there he will compare those values of each city to understand how and why they may be the same or different, giving greater insight into how urban planning is being conducted in India.

One thought on “Non-Sanitized Pictures”

  1. Very interesting blog post. The unexpected situations so often shed light on the assumptions we have based on what our previous experiences have included both legally and culturally. I look forward to keeping up with your blogs in the weeks ahead. Future JHS students will benefit from what you are able to share!

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