Chennai Entry 6: Popularity and Unpopularity

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So much for being an authoritative auditor. This afternoon our reputation for competency, if not quite crashed around our ears, at least suffered a few ungainly wobbles. The day started well as we ate vanilla pancakes for breakfast, then spent the morning giving the copyeditors back their tests individually, which we’d marked the previous day. I felt very sorry for the poor editors: the manager had set us up in the conference room, a large, dimly lit room dominated by a glass table and leather, high-backed armchairs of the sort evil geniuses sit in and steeple their fingers. I ran over to switch all the lights on as soon as the manager left, and tried to put some of the chairs at more friendly angles, but only succeeded in creating a setup like an episode of Mastermind. Not the most comforting of atmospheres to be told your inadequacies as an English grammarian.

The morning passed quickly, and I was rather touched when Margaret asked whether I’d ever been a teacher, and said I had a ‘flair for it’. I ended up talking about teaching at church – she’s quite happy to talk about church and brings up the subject herself sometimes. I had a bit of a mishap at lunchtime, when our two kinds of rice and paneer masala arrived. I accidentally ate a whole chilli, under the terribly misguided impression that it was a green bean. It was not a green bean. I found that out far too late to save my tongue and throat from feeling like they’d been whipped into submission by a maniac wielding barbed wire. It took a whole ten minutes before I could let out anything more intelligible than a strangled whine, and I was still red in the face by the time we went for our lunchtime walk.

Viji and I spent the time talking about the contrasting traditions surrounding Christmas and Divali, which is this weekend. They’re actually fairly similar, except no Christmas I remember ever involved getting up at 3.30am to give your hair an oil bath and set off crackers. Apart from that, the main difference, I had to shamefacedly admit, was that Christmas involves more rubbish television, and less church.

But back to our incompetence of the afternoon. We’d given out the collation test in the morning, to a group of unimpressed-looking workers. Something I’m still getting used to is the fact that Indians often shake their head when they mean yes. Actually it’s sort of a side-to-side motion, like their heads are on springs and they’ve just been flicked with a giant finger. When you’re explaining something and looking at them for signs of their understanding and approval, it’s very disconcerting to be met with a chorus of shaking heads, as your instinctive interpretation is ‘Oh no. They hate me’. Even allowing for this, the glare on some of their faces definitely indicated that they had better things to do with their morning than transfer some fake corrections to a fake article. But they took it, and returned it, and after lunch we started to mark it. Until we noticed that we’d given them the wrong set of fake corrections. Horrorstruck, we photocopied the correct page and had to give all the tests back and ask them to do the extra questions. No shaking heads were needed to interpret their feelings this time. Oh dear. Yes, we’d like to assess how well you do your job. No, let’s not talk about how well we do ours…

Hilariously, in the past day we have become the hottest property in Chennai. Two other typesetters are based here in the city, and coincidentally these are the two typesetters who have not yet been visited – their turn comes in January. And both these typesetters are suddenly very keen to show us a good time, and to take advantage of our presence to grill us about what the visit will entail and how they can best prepare for it. This evening we had a meeting with representatives of one of them, and tomorrow, their manager (who rather nauseatingly signs his emails ‘Nige’; it took Margaret some personal effort to reply to his email in the same style) is taking us out to dinner, with his partner, Carvery. No, I don’t think her name is really spelled like that, but that’s how it sounds, and it makes me laugh, so it’s staying. ‘Nige’ asked us whether we preferred a pub atmosphere – there are PUBS in Chennai?! – but we said we’d leave it up to him, so that’ll be interesting. Imagine me and the 63-year-old, genteel and lovely Margaret, hitting the town with ‘Nige’ and Carvery. We’ll be the oddest double date Chennai has ever seen. On Tuesday next week we have a meeting with the other typesetter, who also then want to take us out to dinner. We have not had the heart to tell either typesetter that we will not be the ones visiting in January. It seems kinder to let them feel better for now.

An odd sight after work – we got stuck behind what looked like a smallish mountain of leafy branches, all piled up on top of each other with no visible means of support. This had evidently resulted in some loss of peripheral branches, as there was a small Indian man running backwards and forwards in the road, picking up and returning to the pile the sticks he’d dropped. We waited ages while he collected every last leaf, then managed to squeeze past to find that this gargantuan heap of greenery was contradicting all laws of physics by balancing on…a bicycle. It was eight feet tall at least. Not so much as a tarpaulin over the top. No wonder he was losing branches in the slipstream.

Tonight we ate at the third and final restaurant in the hotel (neither of us having any inclination to try the bar), called ‘Hip Asia’. Except, of course, it appears as ‘hipasia’, as things are so much cooler without caps or spaces. Curiously, the most prominent hotel in Chennai does not regard its own country as being hip enough for Asia, as there was no Indian food on the long and complex menu. We had Malaysian, and it was jolly nice, even though I was cautious at first because there really were green beans in the vegetable dish, and I was not going to be fooled twice by that old ruse. It was the sort of trendy restaurant you might find in the expensive parts of London (I imagine…) – minimalist decorations, bamboo blinds over the windows, ebony chopsticks resting in their own little porcelain cradle. The plates were the same shape as the Windows logo, though I didn’t tell them this, nor that the garlic broth we were sent as a free starter tasted like gravy granules. Some things are better left unsaid.

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