Six hard drives had burnt out over the last year. Mine wasn't the first, a fact my colleagues chose to inform me of after the damage was already done. It was an ongoing problem. Bad electricity in Varanasi, that is when there is any electricity at all.
When I arrived by train in Varanasi I had been backpacking through the north of India for about a month, a cock sure 26 year old who was certain he had seen the best and worst of the subcontinent, and was more than adequately prepared for whatever it threw at him from then on. I wasn't.
Other travellers had warned me that the city was worth seeing, but anything more than two days would stretch the limit of your sanity. I didn't know it then, but it would become my home for almost half a year, and looking back now it's hard to argue they were wrong. But like so much of India, my experience living and working in the city was a mottled contradiction, a mosaic of black, white, and greys not easily defined or susceptible to neat summation. I both loved and hated it. To this day I'm not entirely sure of the reasons for either.
I lived and worked in Varanasi for around five months, originally beginning in a volunteer capacity with a small German run charity after striking up a friendship with one of the workers there, then later taking on a paid position. The organisation runs a school for street children, providing clothing, food, education, and a medical clinic that gives basic care. Being impressed by their work I offered to help with a few simple things here and there; updating their website, setting up broadband internet access, and conducting a few computer classes for the charity's local accountant.
At least these would have been simple tasks back home. In Varanasi they quickly developed into a long drawn out saga. Constant power shortages and slow dialup internet made working on the website a hair tearing experience. Getting the house connected to broadband required a month of trips by rickshaw all over town, following up on unfulfilled promises and a trail of paperwork entrenched within a Kafkaesque bureaucratic nightmare. Eventually it took a phone call from the charity's lawyer, a local man evidently quite well connected, and a chance meeting on the streets of the old city before two guys on a motorbike finally came to hook us up.
Things are just done differently in India. Ask a painter to paint your office blue, and he will nod and say yes, no problem, and you will come home to find the room white, because that was the only paint he could procure on that particular day. Ask him to fix it and he will nod and assure you it will be fixed, but you are just as likely to come back and find one wall green, the rest still white (yes this happened), and the painter gone along with half the money. He'll send his brother for the rest the following week.
There is no problem in India, no "it cannot be done." There is merely a need for flexibility. Adaptation. Improvisation. On both the customer and the supplier's behalf.
It turned out that it wasn't the city's 'bad electricity' that was causing the hard drive failures, but the fact that the house where the charity was stationed, in the heart of Varanasi's old city, had been poorly wired by the electrician originally. He had forgotten to include an earthing plate, which explained the frequent shocks we received from our computers. There was a big drama as the family (who all work for the charity) rushed to find someone to put one in, but two days later the same electrician who was responsible for the gaff was back again, replacing a light switch in the living room. When I asked about this I was told flatly that he was the family's electrician. He always had been and apparently always will be. No problem.
Business in Varanasi is more about personal relationships than it is about competitive pricing and quality of work. If you're after a new bangle for your wife you are less likely to go shopping around as you are to ask your friend Prabhu, who will recommend his brother in law. Once this relationship is established it can last generations. Prabhu's brother in law will be supplying your daughter with jewellery for her dowry, a nose ring for your grandchild's third birthday.
While these kinds of relationships are often found in the Western world as well, what's confusing to many foreigners is the loyalty with which the Indian people view them. In the West it's business first, then personal. In India it is more often than not the personal that leads to business, the relationship going beyond mere seller and buyer. The family's electrician wasn't perfect, probably wasn't even qualified in any official sense, but he was an integral part of their lives, and come what may, for better or for worse, he was the family electrician.
There are benefits to this approach. It fosters a strong sense of community, establishes networks that help prop up local artisans and workers, and cements rich personal relationships. It's an approach that connects people on more than just a self-interested basis and entrenches loyalty. It's both an expression of, and feeds back into broader society.
The downside is that you may lose a few hard drives along the way. But after all, this isn't really a problem...it merely requires a little flexibility.