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.

5 Comments:

At 9:52 AM, Blogger Mindmentor said...

Good One. Here's what Indira Gandhi supposedly told one of the western Presedents(God knows who):" I run a country, you run shoppin malls".
I'd say the attractions are solely meant for foreign tourists comin to India so they don't miss their barbie-doll countries and the middle class indians so they don't have to swipe their new credit card towards Lufthansa.
India remains in the hearts of those who left it "as was". We'll come back someday and get things back as they were...(imagining how "HIT" a Bajji stall will be in 2020...)..
Love,
S

 
At 5:51 AM, Blogger Ram said...

Well, that was a nicely written post, and it’s always pleasant to sit back and reminisce the past, whether you’re an NRI or not. You’re probably right about Indians returning to India not wanting things to change, as opposed to the view that the author of the said article put forth. But I’m afraid those of us who DO live here WANT all those cafeterias and shopping malls. I was amongst the first to rejoice when Qwikys put up shop in Chennai.

Funny, isn’t it? Those of us who want things to remain the same have left the country; and those of us who want things to change have stayed on. Or perhaps it’s simply the old adage “The grass is always greener…” NRIs come home expecting ‘greener’ grass and find large tufts of home turf. And they feel cheated. I don’t blame you.

R

 
At 6:49 PM, Blogger Iday said...

Nice post...
But i guess i dont concunr with it completely.

While something like a post trying to convince or rather hint at India becoming a better economy and that lifestyle of ppl are getting comparable to those of the west et al are crap, i guess the article must have tried to say "You wont miss many stuff u find here in india". So for those who are keen abt it, you can get back to indian and still lead a pretty american life.

Your expectations might be pretty less and hence ui are happy to see ur hometown the way it used to be, say, 10 yrs back. But there are some ppl who need these stuff. You are never gonna crib abt returning and the article only addresses the second group and says - "u wont miss our place by much. surrender ur HIBs and return" ;)

Coffe shops, pubs, discotheques, huge malls - all withstanding, chennai as such has not changed :) So for those who love their margazhi kolams and early morning suprabhathams - they are still very much ON!!!

 
At 6:37 AM, Blogger Vinitha said...

Hi Divya...
nice post.
Had to agree with you on this one. It's so sad that people choose mushrooming of malls, discotheques and pubs as signs of 'development'.

I'm, so to say, still in the 'boring, old'(as people say!)Thrissur...Have heard lotsa people say that India is 'uncool'; still know people waiting to jump out of India in the very next flight possible, coz they can't 'stand' the living conditions....


And yeah, i also happen to be a Harisri-ite :)....2003 batch pass out (plus two). Always glad to bump into a Harisri-ite!And i do remember you....u used to be damn good at arts also, right? (cartoons, etc??)
And of course, you have proved your literary skills beyond doubt at school and here!
Keep writing, its a pleasure to read :)

Vinitha Valsalan.

 
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