Life is one big adjustment for everyone who moves abroad. Communication conundrums, food foibles, weather worries and what not. But, for Indians, there’s a whole other layer of learning that takes the Mickey out of foreign living.
Let’s call that layer the DIY syndrome. Do It Yourself .
The problem begins with the fact that domestic help- even part time – is a foreign concept here. And, manual labour is anything but cheap. So, your life is pretty much in your hands. There is no dhobi or press wallah washing and ironing your clothes, no bhaiya or didi to cook, clean and make you endless cups of tea. Every cup you drink is a cup you wash.
But all of that is still manageable, you can wrap your brain around it and hope that you’ll get used to it. It’s the bigger things, like having to paint your own house and play handyman that are a tad tougher to assimilate.
Two of my biggest DIY shockers involve furniture. If you’re a desi about to move into an unfurnished home in the Netherlands, you’d do well to learn from our example.
The first time I went to IKEA, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I knew it was the answer to all our furnishing troubles, but not that it would be adding to our troubles as well. We walked around, saw people making notes, figured out the cataloguing system for stuff we liked and, finally, found ourselves in this huge storage bunker, staring at packages of disassembled wood. Think back to your very first visit to IKEA and tell me you expected to walk home with planks of wood. If yes, then good for you. I certainly didn’t.
Don’t tell anyone, but the first time we assembled the cupboard, three planks were upside down. We had hammered in so many nails that Akshay had to channel Jackie Chan and kick down the pieces. Now, we have a cupboard with a hole at the back and gaping front doors.
Mass produced furniture, the kind offered by IKEA or Blokker, has yet to make its mark in India. Most middle class homes buy their furniture from small boutiques, whole sale furniture markets, or have a carpenter come home. Except in the last instance, it is always finished products that are delivered home. The biggest bed and trickiest shelf will all be delivered intact and placed precisely where you want it in your house. In fact, if you tell someone back home that they will have to go home and make their own furniture, they’ll think you’re joking. “You mean, I have to pay for this stuff and make it myself? What rubbish!”
And now, on to shocker number two.
The day after we signed the lease for our new house, Akshay and I went to a second hand shop – Kringloopwinkel (near the aerospace faculty of TU Delft) to look at couches and tables. There we fell in love. It was an old wooden table, oaken and gracefully carved. Octagonal, but not too large. The legs were carved out of the centre, reminiscent of tables one sees at Sotheby’s auctions. It looked perfect. I imagined sitting on it with a cup of freshly brewed lopchu tea, while Akshay was thinking ‘whiskey’. We signed for it on the spot and came home feeling marvelous. Until three days later when the delivery truck arrived. Two big Dutch guys helped carry some of the smaller stuff into the first floor, but they left two couches and the table at our doorstep and walked away. “Too heavy, not our problem. Don’t worry, I am sure you can manage with some friends.”
We couldn’t. We tried, the two of us, but all we managed to do was get the table through the front door and block it forever! We called a friend, Venkat, who skipped work to help, but even the three of us weren’t enough. It took us 1.5 hours, during which two engineers – Akshay and Venkat – came up with some serious IEEE-type calculations. Something about the mass being on X end, therefore force should be on Y end to displace the gravitational pull on A end and create motion on B end. We were also instructed to tilt the table at 35 degrees in order to get it past the winding staircase, which curved at precisely 85 degrees. Umm… What?
Anyway, several theorems and calculations later, we dragged it up five steps and gave up!
I called Kringleloop and offered to pay if they could just send us some help. “No, company policy. Once delivered, it’s your problem”.
I reminded them that the table was left outside the house. “Company policy, if the item is too heavy for our people they won’t carry it’.
I asked them if they could take it back, because a table wasn’t much use to us if it was blocking our front door. “No”.
Okay, did they know anyone who could help us. “No”.
So what were we supposed to do? “No”.
That was it. Akshay and I decided we were throwing the table into the nearest canal. The only problem was, neither of us had the strength to take it there.
We sat on the stairs, the three of us, pondering our options, while tourists peered inside the blocked door to see if some impromptu performance on Diaspora angst was in progress.
Venkat, in utter frustration shouted! “Why on earth would you buy such a heavy table! I last saw a table like this in 1992 at a museum in Hyderabad. Didn’t you check if you fools could carry it!”
It may sound stupid to you, but it hadn’t occurred to either of us to check if it was heavy or light. Consider it an Indian hangover, but it just didn’t seem relevant. Throughout the transaction, I think we both imagined that the table would magically appear in our drawing room like it would have back home.
We totally overlooked the golden rule of DIY.
Finally, the boys decided to go and talk to the owner of an Indian restaurant nearby called Maharani. The restaurant had been frequented often enough for them to have formed a friendship with the owner. Thankfully, there were some boys on the staff who were free and the restaurant manager asked them to help us.
Finally, after four hours, three hundred SOS calls and language unfit for print, the table finally reached upstairs, in the precise spot where it shall stay until we leave.