A Typical Day for a Caucasian Guy Working for an NGO

A Typical Day for a Caucasian Guy Working for an NGO in Bangalore and Other Aspects of that Caucasian Guy’s Life

My writing, like the way I live, is quite unorganized. To help this post make sense, I divided it into three sections: Typical Day, Working, and Living.

I will go on random rants about things so e-mail me if you are confused. I also have not taken any photos or written much while here. I used to photograph and blog a lot, but recently at my work I have been at the computer, and I try to reduce the time I am in front of technology. I will try to start writing again, but I mostly write down ideas and rants, and use the Internet to connect people and resources, from events to petitions, pledges and articles for peoples’ movements (India has a lot) to causes for friends back home, so if you have anything you want to share, let me know. On to the post…

Typical Day
Every week I write to a friend back in the States who has never left the US. He asked me to describe a typical day in Bangalore, where I live and work, so here it is:
I have started to embrace a patterned life, where I eat my three meals a day and try to do what I need to do, so a typical weekday is quite consistent for me.

I wake up around 8-9ish and cycle to work. I have never seen another Caucasian person cycle in the city so I get a lot of smiles from schoolkids as I block traffic for them so we can cut across busy intersections, stares from car drivers, and laughs from auto drivers (“rickshaws”). I even had an Indian take a photo of me and a couple of people yell, “white man on cycle” so I am broadening horizons on what modes of transit Caucasian people can tackle.

On my ride to and from work I go by:

the Hockey Association: field hockey is the national sport here. The more you know…
a huge Banyan tree: a type of tree that looks like it has 100 trunks as its branches root into the ground (crazy huge) that covers a Hindu temple and a bunch of snack stores. My friend says they have to cut the branches for the ones near the streets or people will put a temple under them.
a street with a bunch of pubs/bars (Bangalore, which has about seven million people, claims to have the most bars in the world which I think can’t be true as I am from Milwaukee, the beer capital of the US)
a couple of rich clubs and high-rise apartments (with slums tucked behind them in blocked off land)
a Hard Rock Cafe in an old stoned building that says “Book Society” above it from when the British were here (right next to the Bible Society), which plays horrible rock music (the Hard Rock and the Bible Society)
St. Marks: a huge church (Bangalore has many huge churches, a splattering of mosques and a temple every other block)
Cubbon Park: the largest park in the city with statues of British colonial hotshots and Gandhi, a children’s playground and train that goes through the park (both of which I have been kicked out of), a gazebo for weird concerts (and Caucasianpeople to read), thousands of trees from throughout the world, a pond for loud birds, and sometimes a cow just chilling there at night, and we lock eyes in the moonlight
the new Metro, which is cutting down a lot of trees, destroying a lot of jobs, was decided upon without consulting any citizen groups, and cuts across the field where the two ultimate frisbee teams in Bangalore practice, but it is going to make Bangalore a world-class city (according to the Authorities here, all world-class cities have big metros so Bangalore needs a big Metro)!
the huge cricket stadium: the major sport here. I have never seen a girl playing, but games are always going on everywhere all day from early morning to late night.
lots and lots of traffic and pollution, but I cycle around it all and get places quicker than any car could
lots of street dogs and the occasional cow and two camels that are walked by kids on the street, but that’s a rarity
The city is considered the Garden City and the Pensioner’s Paradise, both names having more meaning ten years ago before all the construction and high-rises and a lot of the city’s small parks where people work out (aka old people walk in circles) are disappearing, but there are still a lot of trees: palm trees, ones with purple, white and pink flowers, and huge, tall ones that hawks and falcons will land on, and bats at night.

Reflecting on what I see on my ride shows all the beauty there is in a chaotic, polluted city like Bangalore if one focuses on the positives. The central part of Bangalore is also really good at hiding poverty by concentrating slum dwellers in certain communities, and deterring people from pissing on walls (an Indian pastime and one I have taken to quite well, especially at night (it is like camping to be under the stars, moon and tree tops)) by covering the city in religious images (although people just pee on the religion they dislike) and a series of murals of kangaroos (none in India), dinosaurs and dragons and big Caucasian guys with long hair battling them (some in Southwest India), and tourist images of the state, which were painted by local city government to help with elections, and which I must admit are rather beautiful, although local artists hate their tackiness (dinosaurs almost ate Jeff Goldblum; do not call them tacky).

So after my cycle trip, I go to our office on the fourth floor of the United News of India office building. I have been working for a non-governmental organization called Janaagraha (in Hindi, it means “force of the people”) for the past 4-5ish months. It is like an office in the US except this old barefoot tea lady walks around 3 times a day and gives people “chai”, and power goes off often.
Janaagraha works on many urban issues, from traffic and transportation to infrastructure assessment to education and teaching schoolkids about local government to outreach and getting people to vote and get involved in local issues, such as garbage clean-up and civil defense patrols (neighborhood watch). Our office takes up an entire floor and has about 40 computers with 40 full-time employees and many interns/volunteers coming in and out. I think I remember reading that the average NGO worker stays for 6 months or so, and India with its one million plus NGOs is probably no exception. Many people at work are surfing on Facebook and random applications and things, and life often reminds me of the ingenious film Office Space.

Everyone is Indian, and they come from many different parts of India, but most of the folks are from the state of Karnataka that Bangalore is in. I hear different types of music/languages once and a while, and some of the music is really funky and cool, especially the Tamil fusion music (mixes of western and Indian and classical, hip-hop, etc.). There is one other Caucasian full-time employee, an Urban Planning student here for a year from New York, and then an Australia youth fellowship program sends people to our work every three months or so.

Indians like to have lots of meetings so people are always moving around talking to each other and scheduling more meetings. I used to go to a lot of them and that took up almost half of my day, but it was too much arguing, and we forget about actually consulting citizens and people. I understand the democratic, collective decision making is timely, but our organizational structure seems to discourage it. We aim to run like a corporation and have weekly Monday mornings where everyone reports to the group, but the floor and decision making goes to our two founders. A lot of our work seems to be for people as opposed to working with them, but we do have a lot of focus groups, and a lot of our programs do engage with citizens on the ground so I guess the engagement is mixed.
So a normal day at the office will be sitting around at the computer doing research, but sometimes we will have an event to launch one of our activities and bring in community members, government officials and such. Once and a while I also go in the field, which means going out with our outreach team to different community leaders and recruit them to get more people to vote and do different political activities.
We also get an hour lunch during the day and there a lot of places to eat around here including an Alliance Francaise, which is the French Cultural Alliance, and has a nice courtyard with lots of different colored and sized trees and butterflies and a funny hyper dog and a dying cat that sounds like a grandfather choking and couching up smoke. They have an open-air cafe and some Indian-French-Western food mix. Half of the Indians bring in their own lunch (and I help them eat it on the roof), but half go to restaurants around here, mostly quick canteens and food halls that give you a bunch of rice and meat or veggies and you pay about 20 US cents. I am learning Hindi in terms of the food names so that helps.
We also have a roof on top of our building like pretty much every building in India (and really outside of the West) where there is a guy that will bring up and sell tea. There is a neat view where we can see the top parts of the major sights of Bangalore: tips of the skyscrapers which are mini rip-offs of the ones in New York, this government building which is a rip-off of Windsor Castle (where the Queen stays in England), some churches with bright red neon signs, some mosques, and a lot of trees, plus the hawks flying over you.
I usually leave work around 6 if there is something going on but some guys will stay late using the internet, doing more work, watching a cricket game (there is some soccer but they are all British teams), but sometimes I try to go to an art museum/gallery, a cultural center, or some social or cultural event, such as a political or social discussion (for instance on public spaces or people in rural tribal areas being displaced from their lands). Generally, most of the art and discussions are bad as they are funded by large corporations so the art is about sales and the discussions are quite limited in their scope, but once and a while there is gem (I will describe some of the gems in a later post from community art shows to a slum version of Superman in “India’s parallel movie universe” aka the best film I have ever seen).

I usually end up cycling home, which is nicer and downhill, and have been going to Gold’s Gym, a US chain, for the past month. There are a bunch of big buff Indian trainers and they are really dorky: always hitting on the one Caucasian lady in the gym and smacking me in the butt once and a while, saying “keep it up Nikolai”, so I think that will be stopping soon.

For dinner, I go out to a cheap Indian restaurant or there is a cheap Tibetan place (amazing steamed momos and soups) that I go to or I just hang with my roommates and read. It is the best food in town, and our apartment’s eating habits may be funding the Tibetan community of Bangalore.

So I’d say that’s a regular day here. I try to go to different cities on the weekends as there are a lot of natural and cultural sights around. We are in the middle of the country so we have the Arabian Sea to the West about fifteen hours bus ride away and the Bay of Bengal another ten hours away to the East and backwaters and coffee plantations to the South, and the rest of India with all its possibilities, contradictions, and craziness to the North.
I discussed a lot of what Janaagraha does above (if you want to know more about any of their programs, let me know).

I have worked on two main projects. The first one was a training module for their electoral and civic engagement program. Janaagraha is mobilizing thousands of citizens to work on different community and governance issues, with a focus on electoral registration, get out the vote and informed choice. I worked with another Janaagraha member on designing community organizer trainings, so our volunteers could create teams, divide up roles, and plan strategies for mobilizing more community members for activities from voter registration to post-electoral social issues like cleaning up a river, the maintenance of a hospital, etc.
The training module we used was similar to trainings during labor and civil rights campaigns in the US, such as the farmers strikes in California in the 70s and the Montgomery Bus boycotts and other similar civil rights work in the 60s. The training was co-opted by the Obama campaign for their registration and get out the vote drives and was highly successful, i.e. he won and got many people to register and vote in areas that never did. The training focuses around narrative construction, or story-telling, in order to connect with other community members.
To simplify the training for the purpose of a blog, we practice telling three stories: Story of Self (why you are doing the work), Story of Us (an example of how the community or a community has been successful in this work), and Story of Now (why this work is urgent). For more readings on this, check out the new organizing institute, especially this great article on education.

My current project is creating a “democracy index”, where nations try to figure out how to make their election processes better. So essentially they try to get rid of corruption and having a bunch of dead people or animals who are registered to vote. The index actually focuses more on reforming the processes of voting, such as registration and balloting, as opposed to larger structural reforms that deal with the number of political parties or campaign finance so it has a limited scope, but can be powerful in processes reform.

I also help with Communications, Outreach, Research, etc. whenever needed so there are always things to do.
Upon arriving in Bangalore, another AIF fellow, April, and I stayed with a friendly young couple. We found them using the sitecouchsurfing, an amazing network where people post profiles saying that they have a couch, floor space, an extra room, etc. for a certain number of people to stay. You simply look up people by city and ask if they have space available. I cannot recommend this site enough. It’s a great way to meet locals and see a new side of a city, from staying with the founder of the Icelandic version of Chipotle to the “Moroccan Bob Dylan” to a diplomat who took me to the home of the Hungarian President.

There are over 2,000 couchsurfers on the Bangalore network so I received many replies to my request for a place to “crash”. For September/October in Bangalore, I stayed with two cousins from Bombay: one physicist who studied in London and the US, and a graphic designer who bought 15 packs of cigarettes to make ash trays out of cigarettes (quite beautiful designs) and is an amazing cook. He is interested in opening up his kitchen to anyone who wants to cook, and he will make a couple dishes and you can eat what you want.

I then moved in with a guy from Delhi, and we slept in the living room, while his collection of birds moved into his old bedroom. So he lets them fly in the room and their cage doors are open and they have branches and such to land on. His house has a zoo of insects outside of it. One morning I looked at some leaf ornament he had and there was this huge bee (like the size of half a hand). I looked at it for like a minute, and it didn’t move so I said to myself, “Oh it’s fake” and right when I thought that, it turned at me with blazing red eyes, and I ran away. I was told it was a killer bee (not to be confused with killa beez).

My current place is right behind “Jaaga Creative Common Ground” (photo below), a giant art tent with many different leveled-floors that hosts talks, dances, exhibits on art, technology, anything, etc. I live with the co-creator of Jaaga who runs an incubator for social media and technology start-ups, an American who is works at Babajob (an organization that helps low-income folks find jobs), and three Indian guys that design Facebook applications and other random technological thingy-ma-jiggers.

I think that is enough for an introduction. In my next post, I will try to self-censor less and be more critical of what I have observed and experienced in India, especially given the disempowering nature of NGOs and the obsession with the Indian “middle class” and GDP growth and development at any cost, and the myth of volunteering and donating one’s way to a better society.

But until then, All The Best (don’t ever watch this Bollywood film; absolutely horrible).

Posted by Nikolai Smith

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