Writing about India is a tough exercise. Writing about anything, for that matter, is difficult but when there are so many expectations of and so many strong feelings about one's home the problem of sifting experiences and distilling feelings is doubly trying.
I was in India last month, after a period of almost three and a half years. So much has changed and so little has changed. Sahar airport is now Chatrapati Shivaji International Airport but the same smell of urine and phenol greets you as you pass through the dimly lit and drab passages before arriving at the immigration counters. No attempts seem to have been made to clean the red splotches of betel juice that adorn walls right in front of those immigration officers and no attempts seem to have been made to change the attitude and behavior of those officers. A woman in front of me, with a new passport, was told she had to produce her old passport and the hapless traveler looked lost and about ready to cry. And you find some of the arriving passengers bend down close to the officers to have a whispered conversation and you wonder what is up. Don't you wish you could place some microphones there to find out what goes on between those shifty eyed passengers and the smug officers?
But things do change. After navigating through the immigration and customs (actually much easier these days than when I made those first trips out of the country) you will be surprised that the Jet Airways counter is open, even though it is 4:30 in the morning! Of course, the Indian Airlines counter is closed and I thank my travel agent for booking my flight from Bombay to Bangalore on Jet. Even more pleasant is the experience once you get to the domestic terminal and to have smart young men and women of the airlines courteously enquiring about your flight and when and where you can check in your luggage. Gone are the days of Indian Airlines monopoly and bad service.
Minor matters but they do signify some things: private enterprise has brought about some much needed changes in India and I hope they augur more good things in the future. There were major events of which you have all read about: from the ravages of the cyclone in Orissa to the Pope's visit; from Madhuri Dixit tying the knot in L. A. to the celebration of Deepavali and the media hoopla over the suicide of a widow in Uttar Pradesh. Despite the newspapers complaining that there wasn't much being done to alleviate the plight of people in Orissa, I was surprised to note how the Indian newspapers themselves played down the horror. There were no banner headlines and all-out coverage that took up all of the front page. The calamity had to share space with mundane happenings and the usual politicking! And on Star News some of the talking heads of Indian television appeared on programs without so much as a factsheet on the cyclone. From the program host to the fancy tasking media pundit everyone indulged in general platitudes and abstract finger-pointing. It was not just the Orissa government that was under-prepared for the cyclone and poorly executing after the calamity it was very much too the story with the media, especially the English language media. Some good things that I observed in terms of the media response was the variety of relief funds they announced and seemed to be managing. Jain TV had a regular ticker running at the bottom of the screen 24 hours a day informing the viewer where they could send their donations and how much they would contribute to the relief fund. Unfortunately in Bangalore I noticed that it did not dampen the enthusiasm of people buying vulgar amounts of fire-crackers to burn and blast during Deepavali. And they blasted them late into the night without a thought for the neighbors who were trying to sleep or without a thought for those in Orissa who did not have a place to sleep. We have still a long way to go in terms of cultivating philanthropy in India. I heard though that the response in Delhi to the call to avoid fire-crackers and to contribute to the Orissa fund was more successful.
In Delhi, where I spent three days interviewing some people for a project I am working on, I established first-hand that indeed it is the second most polluted city in the world! I couldn't sleep at nights, even with the airconditioner on, as the fumes from vehicles that I had breathed in during the day messed up my throat, eyes and nose. Maybe, that is why the Pope looked not very happy during his visit. He seemed to be morose and had a far-away look in his eyes. It couldn't all have to do with the VHP protests away from the papal motorcade! Talking of pollution: there is a market out there at least in Bangalore and Delhi for some kind of gas masks that commuters can easily wear and which would prevent them from breathing too much of the deadly fumes. NRI businessmen please note!
The Pope was accompanied by a retinue from the Vatican whose members all seemed to prefer dark cassocks and purple caps. Unsmiling, brooding, they set the tone for the visit, which ended with the Pope waving a red flag in front of the VHP if not the whole Indian population. Reserve the third millennium for spreading Christ's word in Asia he announced in an act that reeked both of arrogance and hubris. One only hopes that the third millennium in Asia is not as bloody as the first in Europe and the second in the Americas.
Bangalore is falling apart. My hometown is so clogged with traffic and the roads are so pock-marked and the garbage bins so over-flowing that one wonders if there was anyone in charge of the city these past years. J.H. Patel seems to have earned a place in history, next only to that of Nero, for being oblivious to the pillaging and plundering that took place right in front of his eyes. There is no other reason for the state of the state of Karnataka except for the organized looting and plundering under the aegis of Bangarappa, Deve Gowda and J.H. Patel. Bangarappa, I was told, was known as 10 percent Bangarappa. Ten percent of any project cost would have to go into his coffers, people visiting the Vidhana Soudha (the seat of government in Bangalore) knew. And the joke was that the people would know only after he left office if the Vidhana Soudha still was owned by the state! Deve Gowda, the feudal chieftain who through an accident of history became Prime Minister of India, has reportedly amassed thousands (yes thousands) of crores and many of the prime properties in Bangalore belong to him and his very extended family, even an autorickshaw driver will inform you. And J.H. Patel, who people believed only was drunk and asleep at the wheel, was revealed to have gotten a little loot tucked away too. While I was there a news item in the Times of India reported that a Rs 10 lakh watch ($25, 000!) that belonged to Mr. Patel had been stolen and that the police was interrogating servants at his official residence (which the ex-chief minister still occupied!). So, had Mr. Patel bought the watch from his personal income? You betcha! A Malaysian businessman is said to have gifted the watch to the chief minister, who like most politicians in India, failed to report to the government about the gift and its worth. Interestingly, the local English daily, Deccan Herald, did not even report this news item! So compromised is the owner of the newspaper and so politically blinkered that the editors have time and space only to ululate on reported satis and the infighting in the local unit of the BJP!
I said something about hand-crafted roads, didn't I? It is the irony and tragedy of Indian governance that while politicians mouth platitudes about workers rights and the oppression of the lower castes they are busy raiding the exchequer, doling out lucrative contracts to fellow caste contractors who know squat about what they are supposed to do and flying around the country conspiring to pull down governments. Thus it is that the sidewalks and roads in Bangalore, or the very busy road to Mysore look like they have been ravaged by floods and earthquakes. And the little work that is being on them is patchwork carried out by weather-beaten and scrawny men and women breaking blocks of granite with chisel and hammer and carrying them in baskets on their head. This, ladies and gentlemen, is the state of affairs in India's Silicon Valley.
Traffic in Bangalore is a sight and experience to behold. My poor brother's already tattered nerves got further frazzled as he took me around town in his little Maruti and had to listen to me curse and cry "Watch Out"! Bangaloreans have made driving a fine art. The way the two-wheelers bob and weave and the way the autorickshaws and the tiny Marutis nudge and poke their way and the way the city bus drivers stop their behemoths inches away from a scooterist taking his whole family to a nearby Sukhsagar restaurant, I tell you is breathtaking. NRIs and People of Indian Origin beware: visiting Bangalore could lead you either to have a heart attack or suffer a nervous breakdown.
Indian television fare could be either sublime or ridiculous. I saw a Telugu cable channel on which young children did a version of lip-sync and pelvic thrust to a variety of Telugu film songs. That these were children from five to fifteen displaying this new "Art" form in a "Competition" (Hyderabad's own version of Star Search!) told me that in a free market a lot of what is free is crude and vulgar! Luckily, however, there is a lot of good fare. My parents would regularly watch a t.v. drama called "Mayamruga" (Mirage) on Bangalore Doordarshan. Good acting and strong story lines seemed to have made the serial very popular in Karnataka. On the Kannada cable channel, Udaya TV, every morning there used to be a mini "Kathaa Kalakshepa" with two learned kathaakaras (if I could call them that), one of whom would first sing in the classic gamaka style and in old Kannada a passage from the Ramayana or the Mahabharata and the other would explain the passage marvelously. What a pleasure it used to be to listen to the two.
There are some good news programs and debates on television. The "Big Fight" on Star TV on Sundays seems to attract quite a viewership. I watched one where Kuldip Nayar, K.R. Malkani and Natwar Singh debated what India's response should be to the coup in Pakistan. Nayarji wanted Indians to carry placards and publicly protest the coup. Do it all over the country, he passionately challenged. "Even if the Pakistanis themselves love the coup?" the panelists asked him. "Yes, yes, " he cried as everyone rolled their eyes. Natwar Singh said that democracy and Islam don't go together and I waited to see the next day's newspaper if he would be chastised for making that politically incorrect remark. Nope. Not a word. You see, if K. R. Malkani had said so then we could have expected all the pundits and the posturers to have tried to sharpen their well-worn cliches and throw them at the BJP or the RSS. But a Congress-wallah saying it? Forget that you even heard it.
I loved watching the one-day cricket matches against New Zealand. I would have to reluctantly tear away from the t.v. to go transcribe the interviews that I had on tape. Cricket still attracts large crowds in India; at least test matches and one-dayers. Not like in Australia or England where there could be no more than a score of people desultorily drinking beer and watching the matches.
There is at least one news item everyday about the Andhra Chief Minister. He seems to have caught the imagination of the whole country (except that of his fellow politicians). I heard in Bangalore that you could not believe all the great changes in Hyderabad. Naidu seems to have affected positive changes in every sphere, except influencing Hyderabad's weather. The man is even trying to get his legislators to learn about legislation! Trying something on the lines the Kennedy School of Administration does here for Congressmen, the good Chief Minister had political scientists and administrators give lectures and hold seminars for the representatives, who till the previous week mostly knew how to get their assistants to carry a few home-made bombs just in case the need arose. Hats off to someone who is so energetic and forward-looking and willing to lead a state that has its share of the feudal and the oppressive.
We are a billion and growing and growing very fast. India's cities are bursting at their seems. The vote bank politicians don't care. They live for the here and now and for the next election. They build their mansion in their village and like Laloo Yadav pride themselves on being able to tether their goats and cows in their large front and backyards. That is the paradox in India. You have both the Narayana Murthys leading private corporations and the Rabri Devis heading state governments. Clone Chandrababu Naidu, I say.
To end on a happy note. I have never seen pomegranates the size they are now available in Bangalore. The size of grape fruits and piled up in their glossy, glistening fall color skins and cheap, I ate them almost every day. Try and sprinkle a mix of a little salt, sugar and some rasam powder on the fruit and eat it. I miss India. I am homesick!