The Non-resident Indian Experience — Once Again

It seems as if nothing changes in India. It is a Borgesian land — with roads permanently under construction, billboards partially plastered and in need of attention, and everything, everywhere needing tweaking, straightening, dusting, painting, and washing. Surely, that cannot be, but it is.

I landed in Bengaluru (my hometown/city) this past month to spend a short two weeks with my aging mother. Yes, the Kempegowda International Airport is expanding, and has a new runway and a new terminal being built. There are kiosks now for passengers to self-check and print out boarding passes, and yes, there are the fancy airport duty-free shops selling $1,000 Mont Blanc pens and $25,000 Rolex watches. This land has money, lots of it, and I wonder why we spend so much time raising money abroad to help those who need help here. If only…. Ah, yes, we Indians all have plans for how the country can be straightened, and it is mostly an exercise in futility and a waste of time.

As I step outside the airport and get into the taxi to begin the hour-long ride home, I notice the same old weaving in and out of lanes by almost every motorist. There is even some honking in the middle of the night — 2:30 am, precisely. Despite some rains the roadside shrubbery, even the well-tended ones, are dusty, and no new bridge or road expansion on the way home seemed to be completed in any hurry: with piles of construction debris, mangled heaps of rusting iron bars, decrepit looking construction machinery in seeming hibernation, just lying around waiting for some wheel to turn somewhere. “Why can’t we learn and hurry up?”, I once again despaired, as I have done the past thirty-five years of my life abroad and on the annual or bi-annual visit home. Sure, they cannot be working late in the night, though I wonder why not: on busy roads and thoroughfares, much of the work can be done at night so that morning traffic does not get clogged up. But…

(Clogged Bengaluru roads — courtesy, Google images)

I was pleasantly surprised with the interaction with the immigration officer at the airport because I chose to speak in Kannada, and he was happy to converse briefly with a prodigal on his return home. “Oh, you don’t have the OCI. You better get one. It will be easier,” he advised, and wished me well, asking me what I did for a living, and whether my mother was OK. In Bengaluru, it seems to be a matter of pride for many to not speak the local language. Even some of the auto-rickshaw drivers, these days, I am told, refuse to speak in Kannada. Interesting… and I see that in the next year or two there could be one of those periodic riots in the name of language and the threat of the outsider.

My father built his house in 1968 on a small site in Rajajinagar. We could, as children, stand on the balcony on the first floor and watch the sun go down over the barren, rocky, scrubby, undulating land that stretched for miles in front of us. Now, the iron railings on the balcony are rusted, and twenty different strands of TV cable are woven through them stretching out to buildings across and around our house. I cannot see anything beyond the house in front of ours, and the narrow street in front is clogged with vehicles. When my father bought a brand-new Fiat/Padmini in 1969 it was one of may be two cars on our street, with the other one being an Ambassador. Now…

I don’t mind crowded, but I hate ugly. The sidewalks are uneven, most of them occupied by groups of men and women happily chomping away on their bhel-puri, their dosas, or whatever wonderful smelling snack they are focused on consuming. Madly honking cars, buses, motorbikes, auto rickshaws barely miss each other by the skin of their paintwork, and I stand at the edge of the road smiling at my lost ability to quickly run the gauntlet of moving traffic, and watch as young girls and old men dare fate and make it across the street.

Way back in the 1960s, Walter Crocker, the Australian ambassador to India, wrote a book, “Nehru: A Contemporary’s Estimate”, in which he observed that even in middle-class Indian homes he visited he noticed that pictures and calendars never hung straight, and that Indian towns and villages looked decrepit and in shambles in a way that towns and villages in poorer countries were not. With the tech revolution, with the Internet revolution, with the social media revolution, and Indians making tons of money, it seems as if we still have not lost touch with our old ways: most of what we put together and maintain seem crooked. I despise crooked…

But then, what I enjoyed in the two weeks was life — in all its chaotic, dusty, decrepit, colorful, noisy splendor. In the middle class suburb that I live in the US, the grass on every yard is tended, the sidewalks are clean and contoured and built to specification, the roads are wide, the homes all look new and shiny and the cars in the driveways do not block anything. But then, where are all the people? There are Christmas lights in front of every home, but it is as if the Gods left the lights on and took away all the people. And no, there is no way I can walk down the street and buy whatever I need to buy — vegetables and fruits, clothes and grocery, and almost anything under the sun — as I can do in my mother’s Rajajinagar neighborhood. In the two weeks in Bengaluru, I did almost all of my shopping within a one-mile radius of my mother’s home. What a dreary experience it is here to climb into my car and drive five miles to shop at the big, boring Walmart.

The two weeks spent in Bengaluru was also a time of political tumult, and I observed family and friends angrily or quietly display their political cards. They know I have written books on Indian politics and society, but I am just an NRI who really does not know, and whose insider-out, outsider-in contemplation on the Indian body politic can be easily dismissed. But some will tell me what The New York Times, Pramila Jayapal, and The Economist have to say about India. Interesting…

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