dancing beneath the diamond sky

And we'll dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free Silhouetted by the sea Circled by the circus sands With all memory & fate Driven deep beneath the waves Let me forget about today until tomorrow... Hey Mr Tambourine Man play a song for me...

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

The Trauma of the Unpaved Sidewalk

I read an article in the Hindu today that has set me off on a rant. (For those poor folks in Columbia who are forced to listen to my rants on a daily basis : You know who you are, and I tender my apologies. I had vowed to myself not to care enough about anything during my holiday to start ranting and raving. However, I realize old habits die very hard.)

"Indians find they can go home again" read the headline, and the byline went "Several Indian cities with their Western-style work environments, generous paychecks and quick career jumps are becoming magnets for Indians from the U.S".

Knowing my views already on this subject, I should have steered clear of this article. But nosy idiot I am, I plunged ahead and read it. Here's a blurb from somewhere in the middle: "The passage back is no longer an ordeal, because much has changed in India. Whereas watching a movie in a dingy hall was once a weekend high point, now fancy multiplexes, bowling alleys and shopping malls offer entertainment, and pizzerias and cafes are ubiquitous at street corners. "

My head is spinning at the undressed hypocrisy rampant in this whole sorry commentary. Why the hell do we need pizzerias and cafes, I ask, to attract Indians to come back and live in India ? I've been coming back to India for 3-week vacations for several years now, and let me be honest - eating pizza has never been an item that even figures remotely on my agenda. Let me get this straight : I do not have anything against pizzerias and cafes, per se. I enjoy the occasional slice of thin-crust and am known for my caffeine addiction. I just have a problem with us Indians who , for the first 20-something years of our lives, have grown up "kuppakottifying" (I'm using a very Madras term: for the un-initiated, I apologize; but no other word so fully captures my meaning.) around in Anna Nagar and Mylapore and T. Nagar with primary source of entertainment being drinking goli-soda at the Nair-kadai; how do we, within a year or two of flying to the US, find thin-crust pizzas and peppermint mochacchinos so goddamn essential to not just our well-being but our very survival ?

Let me digress a little: the views in this article, I think, are symptomatic of a larger phenomenon I have casually observed till date. Relatives and friends remark.."India is really developing.." or something along those lines, and continue, "There are a lot of new malls everywhere". A reasonably intelligent & observant person does not have to commune with a lot of economists to know that development does not equal malls. To phrase it in familiar terms, malls & multiplexes are neither necessary nor sufficient for the kind of "development" we need to see before we can even talk about having solved the basic problems of life for the teeming millions who are the invisible backbone of this country.

The article goes on to talk about the new gated communities springing up in Bangalore and elsewhere, catering to the new Exodus of the Returned. "The communities buffer returnees from Bangalore's bumper-to-bumper traffic, unpaved sidewalks and swarming neighbourhoods". A million dollars would not convince me to give up my old-fashioned home in a very unfashionable old neighbourhood to go and live in a gated community. The very idea of a gated community where residents lead an existence nicely sanitized from all the ills of India, in rows of identical 2-storey houses with identically manicured lawns and serially numbered streets upsets me. (In fact, it reminds me a little of Orwellian "1984" or such similar dystopia, but that might be carrying it a little too far.) My whole generation (and many such before us) has grown up braving the "bumper-to-bumper traffic and unpaved sidewalks". In fact, a lot worse than just this: we've ridden crush-density public buses, studied for exams by the light of kerosene lamps due to unannounced power outtages, waded to school in knee-deep water during the flood season (PSBB-ians smile!), and ducked from hooligan stone-throwers on the way to school on the day of an All-Kerala Transport Union Bandh (Hari Sri-ites smile!). My point is only this: hey, all this doesnt seem to have hurt us any. We are not scarred or traumatized for life as a result of having grown up on these swarming sidewalks and unpaved pavements. In fact, we had a whole lot of fun and have also managed to pick up some street-smarts in the process.

The very vocabulary thrown casually into these articles pisses me off. "Ordeal". "Trauma". People, take a step back and LISTEN to yourselves ! We're talking about returning to live in our own countries, after all. Anyone would think the conversation was about going to live in Darfur or the Gaza Strip or New Orleans.

For me, the joys of being in India are too numerous to count.

Not needing an alarm clock to wake up in the morning because of the dedicated band of birds cawing away in the garden.

Having a temple right across the street from me that I can just slip into every evening in a matter of 10 seconds (dont even have to put on my sandals), as opposed to trundling along on the "7" train for an hour and 45 minutes to get to Flushing Meadow.

The fact that my front gate can just be left wide open all day with the only threat being from the stray goats who slip in and eat my mother's petunias.

The fact that I can pick up the phone and call the family doctor for a gratuitous telephonic consultation anytime I feel ill.

Having about twenty pairs of aunts and uncles scattered around in various neighbourhoods whose houses I can drop into for a cup of tea and some conversation anytime I feel bored.

Bhelpuri from the bhelpuri-walla on the roadside, the taste of which is directly proportional to the shabbiness of his little establishment.

Panic phone calls from little cousins at terribly inappropriate times, demanding help on a "project-work" or homework assignment or a poetry-recitation competition at school the next day.

Somnolent summer afternoons spent lying inanimate on the king-sized "oonjal"s in ancestral homes, reading the day's Hindu and crunching away uncontrollably on paatti's murukku.

Fascinating conversations with auto-drivers and taxi-drivers on how to fix the ills of Indian politics and the economy.

The sheer thrill of pushing and shoving at first-day-first-shows that just is not matched by going to Fandango.com and buying tickets online.

I could keep writing this list all day, but it wouldnt end and nobody would even bother reading beyond whatever they've read now. :)

Some disclaimers: I'm not trying to tell people how to live their lives, or what to do with their money, or how to bring up their children. Nor am I trying to make blanket statements about people who return to India or trying to comment on their motivations in doing so (my parents were, after all, amongst the earliest to both leave the country and to come back.) I just feel that we seem to be trying very hard to re-create Palo Alto or Sacramento in the middle of Vyasarpadi or Koramangla and in so doing, forgetting about the things that make this country of ours so perverse and so lovable. Why bother ? Just keep living in Palo Alto or wherever, spare yourselves the traumatic ordeal of transition, and spare us the trauma of having to read such claptrap.

Whats new & whats not

After three days in India, here's my first take on what has changed and what has not.


The fact that Thangam (our housekeeper), Shobhana (the second maid), Gobi (the driver) and Hussain (the watchman) ALL have cellphones this time round. I suppose it was inevitable, but it is still surprising to see it happen.

The fact that Hari Sri Vidya Nidhi High School actually has fans and tubelights in all the classrooms now ! And the kids studying there now complain that there's no air conditioning. At the risk of sounding like a 70-year old talking about those good old days, I will place on record that all those days during the monsoon season when the sky would get dark and it started to pour, we would have to peer down at our notebooks because there was not enough light to see anything; and the kids sitting close to the windows would run to the front and sit on the floor because they would get drenched by the rain coming in through the windows. But it was fun, though. Hee hee.

At the risk of sounding like the typical penny-wise, pound-foolish NRI: how expensive everything seems to have become. The musambi-juice at Trichur Fruits cost, amazingly enough, fifteen rupees and I had to borrow cash from Gopi to pay the shopkeeper !

The number of traffic lights on the streets. As also the complete nonchalance with which auto-drivers seem to ignore them.

Apartment buildings everywhere ! I mean everywhere. In my little town of which I would so proudly boast that it had NO ugly high-rises anywhere. who lives in these apartment buildings, I wonder, and where did these people come from ? Where were all these people living before the high-rises came along ?

The Hindu going colour. Very disconcerting. So no longer does the distinction exist between the unrelieving black-and-white newsprint that merits serious attention on the front porch as opposed to the nattering colour supplements that I would disrespectfully call "The Bathroom Papers".

The Hindu crossword. Gone. Replaced by (what else ?) Sudoku. Everything else I could grant is just mildly surprising. But this falls (along with the subway strike in New York City) into the realm of the unthinkable, the sacrilegious. Fads will come and go. But the Hindu crossword, I thought, was beyond the momentary winds of whim. Apparently not. So nothing IS sacred. Huh.

The erstwhile deadlock of Thalaivar & Ulaganaayagan on Tamil cinema, broken.

The less-than-complete integrity of Thrissur auto-drivers. We're not quite as bad as Madras yet (where the fare quoted only moves in multiples of 10) but definitely gone are the days when the meter showed 7.80, you gave the guy 8 rupees and he returned 20 paise to you.


The complete and total scarcity of small change in shops everywhere. Does this economy run only on 100-rupee notes, I wonder ? No shop, supermarket, taxi-driver, or auto-driver seems to have anything less.

The utter chaos at the point when MG Road meets Swaraj Round, and me having a panic attack for five minutes before being able to cross the road at that intersection.

People building 20-storey highrise office complexes without making any arrangements for visitors to park their cars.

Reigning heroes of Malayalam cinema: still going strong at the ripe old age of 50-something; Mammootty and Mohanlal.

Karan Thapar on TV: as abrasive as ever.

TKS George in the Indian Express: as depressing, gloomy, alarmist and pessimist as ever.

Shobha De in The Week: as abhorrent and fascinating as ever.

Appa's skill at swatting mosquitoes : he's still the world champion. (In fact, I think he's improved with time.)

The content of the 7:00 PM - 8:00 PM "mega-serials" on cable: still a bunch of well-dressed, overfed women sitting around and weeping about their miserable lot in life.

The alarming number of uniformed young students lounging around on the street at 11 AM in the morning, right outside the Government Model Boys High School.

The sheer audacity with which Doordarshan interrupts the Sunday-afternoon movie telecast for a thirty-minute news broadcast that nobody listens to.

The total lack of respect for other people's time. I show up for a 1:00 PM doctor's appointment at 12:55, and end up seeing the doctor at 3:00.

Oblivion to the idea of serving people in the order in which they arrive, at most shops and restaurants.

Indian ice cream: still creamier, way yummmmmiiier than Haagen-Dasz.

The taste of amma's aviyal : still a small mouthful of heaven.

In Airport Limbo

At Kuwait International Airport, God only knows what time.

My India trip has just started, and its been rocky and smooth alternately.

Getting to the airport from home was a hassle beyond imagination. All New Yorkers are, I imagine, just beginning to comprehend over the last 2 days, the full extent of our dependence on the subway. Those MTA veins spreading out unseen under the earth are the city's life support system; silent, tireless engines powering the city-that-never-sleeps. In any case, after a whole day of perplexed non-action and confusion, New Yorkers were back to business on Wednesday, and life started assuming some semblance of normality again (whatever semblances it can achieve, given that the unthinkable has happened. ) Brooklyn Bridge was packed with bikers and walkers braving it in the cold to workplaces in Manhattan. The sidewalks and pavements were spilling over with people, in a crush worthy only of Pondy Bazaar. Cyclists and skateboarders were letting it rip in the middle of all the traffic. Restaurants slowly started opening up and supermarket registers started ringing. This is testament to the enormous resilience of this city and of the people who live in it - New York City stopped, shifted and shuddered for a brief minute; and then moved on to find itself a new equilibrium.

Anyway, it took me a grand total of about three and a half hours to get to JFK. I first hopped onto the free Columbia shuttle that left from 116th and Amsterdam & hopped off at Penn Station. At Penn Station there was a mass of humanity trying to get into the LIRR station, and riot police everywhere trying to control the crowds and direct the people into orderly lines. After about thirty minutes, I had managed to get into the station and buy myself a ticket. I got off the LIRR at Jamaica and then got onto the AirTrain and finally arrived at Kennedy Airport, about three hours and fifteen minutes after I had started. The only thought in my head was finding an empty seat somewhere and crashing. I hadnt even got onto the plane and I was exhausted already !

But coming to think of it, this trek to the airport sounds difficult only by smooth American standards. I've had journeys much worse (or much more colourful, if you want to think of it that way.) One that immediately pops to mind is one time I came home from Madras without any train reservations, in the peak holiday season. I first got to Central Station in Madras, and bought myself a ticket on a train headed for Coimbatore. At Coimbatore I got off (I think I had 1 big suitcase) and was just standing around on the platform, contemplating my options. The idea of lugging the big suitcase all the way up and down several platform stairways to the ticketing booth was not sounding very appealing at that point. I turned around and saw a train taking off on the platform right next to me, the one opposite to the one on which I had got off. A guy was hanging off the steps of this departing train and I just asked him on a silly whim, "do you know if this train goes to Trichur... ?". And he said it didnt go to Trichur but it went to Thevara Junction, very close to Trichur ! I had to think very little to grab my box and jump onto the moving train, observing idly to myself that I had just committed my first violation of law on Indian soil, for traveling ticketless. I realized later that I had no concrete plan as to what I would do or say when the ticket inspector came. I just hung around guiltily on this train till it got to the station I was looking for, and miraculously a ticket inspector hadnt come around until then. As I as hauling my box close to the entrance and getting ready to leave, the guy who I had seen initially winked at me and said that the ticket inspector never came around on this train in the afternoon and so it was a veritable free-for-all for bums, urchins, and idle youth who were either too broke or too lazy to buy themselves a ticket !!!! I laughed and made a mental note to donate the price of the ticket to the Railway Widows Welfare Fund, or closest equivalent.

Now at Thevara Junction I got off (again, at Platform number 12 ) and frustratingly enough, was faced again with the prospect of lugging my suitcase all the way over to the information booth to find out about a train to Trichur. Given that similar technique had already proven itself effective, I found a bajji-wala on the platform and asked him if he knew what train left for Trichur when. He pointed to a train lying just 1 platform away and said it would begin moving for Trichur in 5 minutes. I swore loudly and furiously. I didnt have enough time to run (suitcase in tow) to the ticket booth and hence my only option was to travel ticketless, again. I then realized that my nerve had failed me and I was suddenly too afraid to get into another train without a ticket. (I felt that I had gotten lucky once already; to try the ticketless stunt a second time in the same day I felt, would be pushing my luck a little bit. Surely the benevolent god of ticket inspectors who was watching me from above wouldnt be that kind. ) And then, right on time, brainwave arrives. I turned around to my bajji-bonda-wala and offered him a handsome salary of 5 bucks for making a dash to the ticket booth and buying me a ticket for this train. He was first startled and then thoughtful. He declined kindly, saying that the opportunity cost of missing out on potential bajji sales in that 5 minutes was too high. I countered, saying that I was more than willing to watch his bajji business in the time being and that it wasnt too much of a stretch for me to quote a price and take money from customers while he was away; given that his entire product line consisted only of pazha-bajji for 2 rupees and bonda for 1.50. He wasnt entirely convinced, but he went anyway. And so commenced my brief career selling bajjis on a platform in a station in the middle of nowhere (I made some handsome sales, too. I guess a lot of people were just very curious at the sight of a young girl with a Discman on her hip and a bajji tray tucked into her arm.) And so my saviour came back a few minutes later; I paid him his 5 bucks gratefully and bought some bondas from him as well (I hadnt eaten anything all day; just as well.) and so what better example of a win-win transaction ? I walked grandly into the train , basking in the warm glow of being a decent, law-abiding citizen. And on to Trichur, finally, thank god.

So anyway...right now I'm sitting at a cafe booth in Kuwait International Airport, on my way home (finally, finally) from New York City to India. I realized that this routing is very convenient for me; just 1 long-haul flight straight from JFK to Kuwait for 16 hours and then the short hop from Kuwait to Cochin directly; without that nerve-wrecking, squirming wait at Bombay airport. Initially when I got onto the flight and realized it was 16 hours long, I felt a stab of dismay; but it turned out to be unnecessary. I ended up sleeping for approximately 15 hours and 30 minutes. The remaining 30 minutes that I was awake consisted of time when I woke up briefly from my slumber, throat parched, stumbled into the galley, accosted a stewardess, glugged down a whole gallon of pineapple juice straight from the carton, and stumbled back into my seat and into oblivion again. I have to thank appa again for gifting me his can-sleep-anywhere-on-anything genes; sometimes it can be a bit of a pain (like the many times on the subway when I've missed the 116th and Broadway stop entirely; or on the 47B from Anna Nagar when Vani Mahal stop has chugged by and I'm snoring soundly.) but mostly it is a blessing, and a skill that I think is much more useful than being able to solve multi-generation dynamic moral hazard models with sequential investments and double marginalization of rents.

This airport is a bit strange; it looks somewhat like a warehouse, with tall asbestos-like ceilings and industrial lighting. I went into a restroom, contemplated it for awhile and left, because there was water on the floor everywhere and no water coming out of any of the sinks. I then walked into this cafe and ordered (without thinking) an "american coffee" from the selections on the board, and then felt deeply embarassed about the choice, for some reason that I'm still trying to figure out.

I've run out of things to say (a rare occurrence, as most people who know me would attest.), but I'll just stop with the observation that the last few days in Columbia have been great. Even though I was on some strange adrenaline high (at the prospect of going to India, I can imagine) and so didnt sleep really for about a week, the last few days meeting up with friends and saying goodbyes was very sweet, especially since I hadnt seen most of these people for a couple of weeks as everyone was busy battling it out with their respective exam schedules. Even though I would die rather than admit this anytime in the middle of the semester, life at Columbia does have its little perks and the people in my Columbia world have become an important part of my life, with their warts and all. It really hit me a couple of times over the last few days, when I realized that many of the people I would not see again; the ones who I had entered Columbia with in the fall of 2004 who were graduating and leaving with a Masters degree. Well, as always, the next semester will bring with it new people, new bosses, new classmates, a new dynamic, yet another episode of this fluid, ever-changing grad life. Oh, well. I'm being maudlin and I'm sure the holiday season is to blame. So before I say anything that I really end up regretting in my saner moments, I'll sign off . And of course, fa-la-la-la-laa-la-la-la-la.