Monday, February 2, 2015

Delhi + Super Bowl + Lipstick + Kajal

Around 5 am I wake up at a hotel in the Aerocity region near the Delhi International Airport. I am back in this city after exactly a month. Outside, the dust and fog creates a dim early morning haze and the road leading into the hotels complex, with its obstacle course barriers laid out to deter would-be saboteurs, lies empty. There are a few cars in the main thoroughfare beyond and the lights of Radisson Plaza glimmer in the distance.

I am headed out for a quick one night trip to Guwahati. As I get ready to get to the airport, the Super Bowl has begun in the US. I cannot find it shown live on TV here, but I track its progress on the web. By the time I have washed up and am having my morning coffee, the Patriots are up 7-0. Around 6 a.m. I check out of the Holiday Inn and take the short ride to Domestic Terminal 1. I am rooting for the Seahawks and against the Patriots, if only because the Seahawks are coached by Pete Carroll who had brought USC back to its glory days in College Football in his previous job. I had attended USC.

Delhi domestic terminal 1 is a mess on Monday mornings, as business travelers get busy after the weekend. When the traffic is sparse, Delhi airport with its megaplex underpinnings, is a paragon of sleek efficiency. When the passenger count approaches a critical number, like it did this Monday morning, the place takes a different face and appears to be on the brink of collapse. I try to check in at the crowded automated kiosk machines, but I am flagged as being under a “watch list” because I had used a credit card. So I have to then go to the line for people who are checked in but need to do a baggage drop, and they fix it up for me quickly there. Nobody tells me this: I have to ask around, and things do get sorted out in the end. But this type of setup, where in the midst of an apparently smooth and efficient process, an additional and unnecessary twist ends up threatening your stumps is fairly common. The night before, I had disembarked from the United non-stop from Newark, and the staff did not have the customary immigration cards to give out to passengers, because the government did not get it to them on time and would not allow United to print them out either. So while the immigration lines were moving briskly once you were able to join the line, there was a helter-skelter mess prior to it as people ran around looking for forms that were in short supply.

With my luggage checked in and boarding card in hand, I check the web and the Seahawks are now tied at 17-17. While America watches the Super Bowl, I stand in a long, serpentine security line that folds back and forth about seven times, with the sinking feeling that I will miss my flight. I monitor the time on an overhead screen. It is 6:42 am and my flight is at 7:45 am. It takes me about 8 minutes to cover one fold of the serpentine line. I am worried. But things pick up shortly and the line speeds up. Moreover there is an accelerated bypass mechanism. When a flight’ sdeparture time is perilously close, a young representative in a smart thigh length jacket comes by in a loud voice: “Hyderabad Indigo xxx”. People way back in the line who are headed to Hyderabad raise their hands and press forward. They are allowed to go through.

I go through security by 7:10 a.m. and check the scores. Pete Carroll and the Seahawks are beating the Patriots 24-14. There is an undercurrent to this game. Carroll was coach of the Patriots at one time. But he was booted out after a miserable win record that was attributed in part to his persona being too “bubbly”. He then brought over his effusive nature to the college game as USC’s coach and—over the course of the next several seasons—turned USC’s, and his fortunes around, ending up as one of the greatest college coaches of all time. When USC teetered at the brink of a scandal regarding rules violations, Carroll jumped ship and went back to the pros, this time as the Seahawk’s coach.

We are bussed to the aircraft, and standing opposite me on the bus is a dapper European businessman--Italian perhaps--travelling to Guwahati with an Indian associate. The man is smartly dressed in a grey suit, a navy blue shirt, a deep blue tie with white dots, and a wristwatch with a black leather strap with white stitching along its borders. His suit has a check pattern and one of the interwoven threads defining the checks is blue, stylishly picking up a color from his shirt. A blue and grey folded silk kerchief projects from his coat pocket. His hair is gelled and he has an old world mustache straight out a Cary Grant film. If a man can be described as being “put together”, then here certainly was the defining example. Seeing him and the other passengers I realize there is a different kind of traveler to Guwahati today. Ten years ago this same flight from Delhi to Guwahati to Imphal would have had people carrying coconuts (or something similar) in industrial bags made of thick inter-woven nylon strands. There was a hardy type of traveler to the North-East who were the last bastions to the connection to the past at urban airports and they too, were now changing.

On the flight the Italian businessman is sitting in the seat behind me. As I return from a trip to the washroom, I catch a glimpse of his laptop screen upon which he is working at a powerpoint presentation, presumably for potential clients in Guwahati. Against a blue background the chart reads:
2 lipstick + 1 kajal + 1 eyeliner for you.
2 lipstick + 1 kajal + 1 eyeliner for customer 1
2 lipstick + 1 kajal + 1 eyeliner for customer 2
Savings Rs. 1.75
Such are the ways of European fashion in Guwahati.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

A drive in the suburbs of Chicago and Sydney

The American
An elegant older gentleman with thick white hair drove me from Northwestern to O’Hare the other day, our limousine cruising by the drab suburban sprawl that surrounds midwestern downtowns, years of harsh winter leaving its signature drabness long after the snow is gone.

Limousine drivers will never begin a conversation, but if initiated I have seldom met one who has remained taciturn.  When I tell him I live forty miles North of New York City, the floodgates open.  His grandmother died as a young woman in Yonkers, of the killer flu that swept the nation in 1914.  She was 21 and lies buried in a graveyard in Yonkers.  The grandfather left for Chicago after that.  He went to her graveyard in the 1950s when he had last visited New York City.  

He had the Midwestern habit of using complete sentences in slow cadence, emphasizing the occasional syllable when you least expect him to.  He asked me whether I was a professor.  "An adjunct one at Columbia", I said.  "Well", he responded, "my father almost joined Columbia but then decided to accept an offer to be Comptroller at the University of Chicago.  Sometimes when he had to travel to Argonne, they would send the helicopter out for him.  There was one piece of advise my father had given me", he continued, as young men and women with knee high leather boots and floppy loosely knotted scarves headed for lunch just weeks away from Fall.  "Work hard but leave your work behind when you get home."  Did he practice what he preached?  "Oh, yeah.  He would come home and that would be it. Often he would come home and then my mother’n he would go out.

I wanted to know how long the father had worked at the University.  "Well, my father--he loved his Budweiser and his Chesterfields way too much and he was gone early.  It was 1964 and it was the day that he bought my mother a brand new car.  Went down to the Chevy dealership and bought her a Malibu convertible.  That same day they drove out in the new car to her sister’s place in Wheaton, Wisconsin.  They returned home and that same night he passed away in a massive heart attack.  He was 52.  I was then a student at SIU.  An’ the call came in.  They gave me the news.  So that night I ended up boarding a train.  I was 21."

The conversation moseyed its way, like they can do on such rides, to the music of this city and how Chicago at one time was the music capital of the country.  And not just because the city was churning out pressings of Blues albums, as blacks migrated to the industrial Midwest, but because Chicago’s radio stations, due to their central location in the nation, were able to reach both coasts and therefore held an advantage. 

The man was a repository of the city’s history.  Leaning back on his seat, his white hair in contrast to the dark interior, he would flick a turn signal here, a tap of the brakes there, and let loose, like a slow steam leak on a valve, a stream of words sculpted with a story teller’s chisel. He rattled off the names of musicians who lived in Chicago.  About the Jazz club in downtown that I had visited last year and which he thought had moved since then. We passed by Oak Park. Ernest Hemingway was born there.  Frank Lloyd Wright worked here.  People still came from afar to look at some of Wright’s buildings.  At the turn of the century folks would take the train on the weekend to Oak Park and spend the day picknicking.  Where, I asked him. In the parks!.  That’s why the name.  We pass Arlington.  He shows me the school where Hillary Clinton went.  

He was a throwback.  A seventy year old driver in a big black American limo with a soft leather interior and a softer suspension shushing its occupant in near mechanical silence through the outskirts of Chicago. Imaginings of a past city and visions of a past world dominated by Schlitz and Pabst Blue Ribbon, and Studebakers, and men in dark suits and hats that suddenly felt so real in this massive vehicle with black leather and crimson upholstery.

The Bangladeshi
The morning of our departure from a trip to Sydney we took a cab to the airport. The driver was Bengali and had lived in Australia for over 20 years. I asked him how he liked it. It had been good for his family, he said, not particularly so for himself. He had been a professor of textile engineering in Bangladesh for 18 years and held a Masters degree from Leeds. After arriving with his family in Australia as immigrants, he was unable to find work as a professional and had remained unemployed for the first five years. They had lived on dole and his wife’s income. This led him into his first job as a cabbie on the late night shift. He painted for us a different picture of Sydney than what we had seen—one of crime, gangs and drugs and the dangers faced by a taxi driver on the night beat. He spoke of a Bangladeshi cab driver who was thrown off a bridge late at night, his head bashed on a stone.

Our cabbie seemed happy to be speaking to us, and as a fellow Bengali in a small town would do, gave us a full accounting of his and his family’s situation. He spoke in almost a complete monologue throughout the 30 minute journey, except for my occasional questions seeking further detail or clarification, intrusive by Western standards, but accepted and expected under such circumstances. His family had done well and all four of his children had completed college. The eldest, the son, was 36 and earned good money as an IT professional and travelled the world. A son-in-law was working towards his Ph.D. Two of the daughters worked, one was a housewife. Except for the older daughter, the children's marriages had been arranged. He and his wife had made the arrangements themselves within the Bangladeshi community. He was close to retirement and looked forward to a time when he would start collecting his pension. It was a success story for a man who arrived here in tenuous position but now had 11 grand children in his adopted land. It had been at the personal cost of his professional ambitions and except for a bittersweet acknowledgement of this in his opening sentences, his accounting had remained mostly matter-of-fact, and tinged with some pride as he spoke of his children’s jobs and education.

I have seen the story of the educated cabbie in the West over and over. I have met Pakistani professors of comparative literature, Bangladeshi aeronautical engineers, and numerous Ethiopian engineering graduates driving cabs in cities across America. I have had a Columbian cabbie wave to me a dog-eared copy of a book by Borges that he would read while waiting to pick up a passenger. They have talked to me about their lives, often with a resigned sadness, and an acknowledgement of the counterweights that have been part of the baggage of this balancing of their lives. They arrive in the West and compress their stature, head bowed, crouching as a man has to when entering a short tunnel, and in the end resign to live their lives in this manner doing jobs that are incommensurate with their education, in the hope that their children may stand upright, or that they may be able to send more money back to their families, or that some day they will be able to build a nice house back home and retire on their savings from the West.

Monday, January 5, 2015

India trip December 2014

 Part I: Outbound

Disembarking the aircraft and entering an Indian airport, there is a unique smell, one that mixes the heat, humidity, the counterbalance of airconditioning, and the whiff of disinfectants. Today I sensed this smell much earlier, walking through the passageway that led to the aircraft in Terminal 4 at JFK, New York. I thought it was the mind playing games, for the weather was wholly difference: we had driven in under an overcast sky and a temperature in the mid-thirties (F). But I asked my sons and they sensed this too.

About eighteen years ago we had travelled a similar route, that time my six month old son holding court sitting in a bassinet in the aircraft cabin, flashing smiles at passengers. My older son was then three and engrossed in his books. Today I am travelling with these two young men, heading out to join M who is already in Kolkata. One is eighteen, the other twenty-one, fast asleep either side of me, using my shoulders as a pillow. I had picked them up last night when they returned from college for their winter break. It is not often that the three of us travel together anymore.

Why does a trip to India feel so different and not as any other thirteen-hour flight to say, Sydney or Tokyo or Seoul? Those trips just feel like an extrapolation of a visit to California. India on the other hand, feels like a serious piece of travel. Twenty-five years ago this would have made sense since it gave you the feeling of crossing a certain border: Calcutta looked then like the photographs that you see of Rangoon today, and the old colonial-mofussil style bureaucracy met you right at the immigration when you stepped into the airport.

At luggage pickup at Kolkata airport is a large sign: “Welcome to the City of Joy”. Throughout Kolkata one sees references to this phrase, City of Joy, given originally by Dominique Lapierre, author of the 1985 book by the same name, and adopted enthusiastically by a Bengali audience at a time when India was starved of the world’s attention so that, when a city like Kolkata was the centerpiece of a major, though cliché filled book that was then made into a Hollywood movie, a vestigial colonial mentality immediately picked up the phrase as a moniker for the city. Today the pendulum has swung the other way, the country gets a lot of attention and its proud elite appears overtly reactive, arrogant and even crass in establishing both their Indianness and cosmopolitanism.

A realization strikes me in Kolkata airport. A voice speaking Bengali in isolation sounds wonderful—there is nothing sweeter than a few strains of Bengali heard over a vast sea of people speaking in English in a foreign land: the words waft over as if on rose petals. However, the effect is quite the reverse when there are many such voices in the same crowd--yelling at their straying kids to stay close to the fold, imperious men nodding commands to their drivers, flirtatious bands of college going men and women--then these phrases abrade against the other and the romance is fully wrung out of the language. You have not really appreciated Bengali until you have heard that solo voice abroad in a place where you had least expected it.

Part 2: Server Down Achey

India is one of the cheapest places in the world for mobile voice and data and one of the offshoots of this largesse of instant communication is that a new sentence has graced the Bengali language:”server down achey”.

Over the past few years I have gotten myself a 3G dongle and a SIM card for my phone every time that I have visited India. Getting the authorization for these works in the end, but the path can be a complex series of actions. Forms are filled up, a passport photo submitted, and a young knowledgeable man at the mobile counter hands you the SIM card with the indication that your card is all but ready to go, that it is just a matter of minutes before you will be connected to the network. He is so assured, the affirmative nod of his head so definite, that were he a General sending you to war, you would have thundered into battle convinced that victory was your birthright. You go home and nothing works. You call a help line "executive", and they tell you “Server down achey. O hoye jaabey. Apni chinta korben na.” You hear this a few times, and then some knowledgeable chap somewhere finally fixes it so that it then works. I would just have hoped that Kolkata, the literary capital of India, would come up with a few more creative excuses. Such as, “Bit’er problem dada. Aajkey  to message gulo aschey thik'iy, kintu 1 aar 0 gulo bujhlen to, ekdom ulto-palta hoye jacchey”

I spend the afternoon on the sixth floor of a building in Ballygunge Circular Road looking down at an older building about fifty meters away, a government flat complex, rich with memories from three decades ago. We had gone for lunch to a cousin’s house, and she pointed out to me the corner flat in this older building where they had lived as children and where I would often visit as a teenager. A few days before I left the country thirty years ago I had taken my cousins out for dinner to Kwality’s at Ballygunge Phari and then at 10 pm walked down along Ballygunge Circular Road with them to this flat. It is here that my aunt, to whom I was very close, died. I spend some time looking at the flat quietly. It had’nt changed much. There was a small park just outside its windows and there were children who were playing in the park. The sounds--that of the crows and the traffic--were I thought more or less the same as from that period. Neither the occupants of that building, nor the people in the park would today remember the family that used to live there, or the artistically inclined gentle lady who passed away prematurely twenty four years ago. When a city sits on its haunches upon your shoulders with its memories, it can lengthen a few moments of an afternoon.

part III: Shantiniketan

Just outside of Kolkata there is a complex of sweeping overpasses that one traverses to get to National Highway 2, enroute to Shantiniketan.  We had started at 7 am and within the first half hour I learned that the driver of our rented car had grown up in the same street of Chetla where I had spent my teenaged years.  So while the car sped along and crossed Nivedita Bridge, weaving in and out between trucks, he filled me in on what had been going on in Chetla since.  First off he told me that Bhola Goonda, a notorious Chetla hoodlum from my childhood is now dead, sprayed with bullets by gunmen as he had breakfast at Sannyasin’s Mishti shop about a dozen years ago.  I had seen Bhola when he was a rising tough guy, a fearless bad apple, who would generally hang around the teashops in the area.  There was a time when he became a source of neighborhood rumors for spending time chatting with one of the young mothers of the locality: she would speak from behind the window of her apartment and with him standing outside the property and just beyond the porch.  These exchanges would take place openly in the afternoons for long periods of time when she was alone at home. I had thought nothing of them, until I overheard the hushed remarks in the conversation of grown-ups later.  We had read the poem, The Highwayman, by Alfred Noyes sometime around then in school, and its subject matter--the fugitive Highwayman who would arrive at his paramour’s house while she waited by the window--likely affected my perception of the swashbuckling Bhola from then on.  So that was how I remembered Bhola Goonda from then on: rising hoodlum of Chetla and conversational companion to housewives.

National Highway has a fast, well-built blacktop and very soon we were out of the metropolis and heading towards Bardhaman, passing dry farmland on either side with occasional small towns and factories making industrial parts.  At one point we passed the town of Singur, the would be location for the Tata Nano factory in West Bengal.  The cheapest car in the world would have been built there, but an elaborate standoff between politicians, farmers and Tata led to the plant’s abandonment and relocation. The tract of land that had been earmarked for construction abuts the highway and we pass half -built boundary walls and warehouses that, now abandoned, have already started succumbing to the elements.  A little beyond Bardhaman we exit the National Highway and take a smaller road that headed towards Gushkara.  This would eventually lead us to Shantiniketan. 

NASA has available on the public web, night-time high resolution satellite images of the earth for the past two decades.  Cities and townships show up as patches and clusters lit up by electrical lighting.  It is easy to see from these images that habitation in India is heavily clustered around the roadways and grows out from them.  Driving along these smaller roads, this fact becomes readily apparent.  Life springs from the roadside. Business is conducted along the shops that line it, and there is a continuous stream of local traffic--pedestrians, two-wheelers and goods laden carts--along the edges of the road, sharing it with the longer distance car and truck traffic. At times the narrow road passes through small villages.  Little seems to have changed and houses have walls built of mud with small, forlorn square windows inscribed within them, and with droopy thatch roofs like a ragamuffin’s head.  Ponds dot the landscape, usually with a cluster of houses encircling them.  Farmland lines the stretch of road between villages and there are little pump houses every few hundred meters in the fields for handling the irrigation.  Unlike many other jobs, farming seems to have a 50-50 distribution of men and women.

We drive into Shantiniketan, a place with red earth, on the day of the annual Poush Mela (fair) and into a major traffic jam that has clogged the entrance to the place.  It is one of the major annual events of the place.  Parking our car at the entrance to Shantiniketan and somewhere at the edges of the adjacent town of Bolpur, we wait at a busy intersection for our hosts to come get us.  As much as life has changed in the big cities, particularly for the richer sections of the population, little seems to have altered, to my eyes at least, in small town Bengal.  The hodge-podge of storefronts, the brightly colored synthetic fabrics, decaying, gravitas laden buildings from the 19th century--everything is diffuse, everything bleeds out a little bit, every object moves into its adjacent space. People hop across the narrow road blending in with cars; cars drift out to the walking areas by the road and nudge pedestrians, private space often overlaps with public space. This is not a place for someone who arrives from the land of straight lines.  To the untrained eye, a busy intersection in small town in India may seem to be at the precipice of a calamity to the visitor, but in real life, it is usually far from it.

We stand in front of a street side shack selling chickens and ducks, and, at the entrance to one of India’s most artistic and elegant universities, Viswabharati in Shantiniketan, founded by Tagore, one of our first experiences was to witness the execution of a duck by a butcher, deftly done in the classic style of severing the neck against a “bothi” or curved knife.

Enormous crowds throng at the Poush Mela, which is laid out in a large field with folk singers, tribal artisans selling their wares, foodstuff vendors, Ferris wheels, bookstores, and agricultural and jute products shops. The afternoon that we drop in, a pair of singers on the main stage improvises on current affairs. There is an entire of row of stalls where tribal artisans sell Dhokra jewelry, made using a traditional metalcasting process.  The jewelers cast the metal in their small workshops using alloys containing zinc or tin along with copper that enables them to melt the metals at low temperatures. We don't have much time and by late afternoon exit the Mela. 

We have come to visit M’s eldest aunt, a lady nearing ninety.  She has outlived her son and husband, who had been a professor of economics at Viswabharati. In this laid back residential neighborhood called Purba-Palli, Shantiniketan retains its sense of indescribable gentleness. Slightly run down single storey houses with deep red floors and wide verandahs are centered in properties with bouganvillea heavy gardens. Dogs and goats wander in and out of the properties. A little girl plays with a goat tied to a leash on a field.  A few men split bamboo stocks for constructional use. These are the traditional faculty housing, though some of them seem to have been demolished and built up into large vacation homes for the rich from the cities. Though they are more tasteful versions of the US McMansions, they appear incongruous in this egilitarian place. Confined to a wheelchair, the aunt lives alone, spending most of the day in the sunlight verandah that overlooks the front garden and a large field beyond.  She is tended to by a handful of women who all have lived there or nearabouts for years: one the child of a past maidservant who now has a post-graduate degree and is looking for a job and refuses to stay with her alcoholic father, one a superb cook who set down a meal of posto, alu bhaja, daal and chicken for us that will remind you of the sophistication of vegetarian Bengali dishes.  The women take good care of her and are fiercely protective—she is now almost childlike and requires constant help.  She in return, would not stay with anyone else but them. When the aunt passes away, the house and property will be sold back to the university. When this happens, the group of women who have spent decades caring for the old lady and have lived their lives here will be ejected from the property. It is clear that the aunt was hauntingly beautiful at one time. He hair is straight and thick even today, and in her younger days it ran down to her legs. When she smiles, you can see a hint of humor in her steely gray eyes, in a face otherwise slowed down by age.  Combing her hair for her, one of the ladies declared, “When she was young she was the prettiest one among all of her sisters.”

part IV: few quick observations

A day before we were to leave for Guwahati from Kolkata, around 80 adivasi (tribals) men, women and children were brutally massacred by a separatist group in Assam. This was picked up in the national news and there was indignation, but mostly in a matter-of-fact manner.  It would have been a different story if this had happened to 80 Indians in Bangalore, or 8 international tourists in Delhi. A day after the massacre, that included children being shot through their mouths, I saw a poignant photograph on the web of a group of Adivasi men standing and ready to protect themselves and their loved ones.  They were armed with bows and arrows for this is all that they had. 

I am fascinated by the endgame of getting a SIM card. In the final step to approval the internet, SMS and old fashioned clerical paperwork have to climax in unison.  The account is set on the internet, then a SMS message sent to the user with a call back number. A man is dispatched to the user’s house to verify the address. This is all very spy-like.  The wireless outlet store in the mall is manned by a phalanx of customer support staff.  Some of them are very, very good. Some are terrible.  All of them seem to work extremely hard.  The top 5% are as competent as anyone I have seen anywhere—they can connect more dots than what they are paid to. 

The behavior of a small percentage of the Western tourists can be embarrassing—exhibiting a rudeness that they would have dared not to in any developed nation and taking advantage of the courtesy of the Indian wait-staff or airline staff. It is not a level playing field for the staff who accept this treatment for fear of otherwise losing their jobs. Mark Twain had written about such behavior in his 19th century travelogue to India. Some traits remain. Perhaps the visitor feels crowded by the pressures of a high population density. Perhaps it is because very few of the staff in India like to respond with, “I don’t know” as an answer and make up on the spot whatever suits their mind, frustrating the visitor. Or perhaps the Indian attendants are just a bit too fawning. Whatever it is, it looks ugly on the part of the visitors.

Thirty five years ago it was believed that the Calcutta Metropolitan Development Authority, CMDA-according to my friend Shuvo--actually stood for “Kaatchi Maati Dekhbi Aay”, given the variety of ongoing roadwork projects in the city at any time.  Whether the CMDA still exists or not, I don’t know, but its successors have continued that tradition, and the entire city is dug up with the building of flyovers and new routes for the metro rail that links the city all the way to the airport. Disruptive in the short term, there is a method to this madness that can be best visualized by taking snapshot passages through the city as I have done, roughly @ about once a year. If vehicular traffic increases exponentially and the growth of roadways sub-exponentially, there is a Malthusian-like crisis to be had in the future; which is where the growth of the metro in Kolkata now seems such a clever idea.  And so this city of poets and dreamers today have (I feel) the most pragmatic plan for traffic management among the metros.

Driving to the airport, a little beyond Ultadanga and where a giant flyover headed towards the airport was being built, we saw an enormous construction pit ringed around which a large crowd had gathered.  There was a rickety emergency vehicle parked and a few policemen who appeared as bewildered as the crowd that they were supposed to control. It seems that a vehicle, or something, had fallen into that hole from one on the roads that passed by it. This was not the first time—our driver pointed out—a few weeks ago an entire bus had skidded off the road and fallen into that same pit, killing several people.  A couple of years ago part of a newly built flyover had collapsed under the weight of a truck and that vehicle too, had fallen a good vertical distance. 

Part V: Guwahati

The Muezzin’s call at 4:30 am over the loudspeakers splits the twilight chill of a Guwahati that is quiet after the night’s revelries welcoming in the new year. The sounds of early morning traffic have not yet begun, and the prayer comes across deep, pure, and soulful.  Guwahati is like a small town that has suddenly discovered it is a city.  Housing over a million people, it has no distributed sewage system for human waste and residents are instead forced to install septic systems in small properties with very little land. Today, the municipality has vehicles that will pump out your septic tanks.  But it can take several days to get an appointment. The traditional style of cleaning out septic tanks had been a manual one using labourers, called “sweepers”.  I saw an example of them in action.  First a big hole is dug on the property nearabouts the septic tank. After this the “sweepers” use their advance payment to go fortify themselves with alcohol. This is apparently traditional practice as well. They arrive at the job site drunk and carry out the dirty task of emptying the contents of the septic tank into the pit that they had dug using buckets and without any protective equipment, except that of alcohol that numbs their senses against the stench and the filth. 

“Hobo Diya” is a response that one hears often in Assam, in response to a request for a certain action to be undertaken. Its Bengali and Hindi equivalents are “hobey ekhon”, or “hoga shayad”, but the Assamese version takes the phrase to new heights and imparts a tone that is luminous with ambiguity. Its statement can have multiple objectives.  It can indicate the deferment, indefinitely, of the request for a decision; it can be a gentler metaphor for “no”, similar to the Japanese use of “very difficult”. Or it can simply mean that the responder intends to continue the mindless exercise that he is currently engaged in and does not wish to get into any complicated thinking at this point as to its merits or demerits. 

We return from Guwahati to Delhi via the 3 pm flight on Indigo Air. Richard Gere had taken this same flight a couple of weeks back and had kept the flight waiting since he had arrived late.  This time there is a large group of religious pilgrims from North India on the aircraft. They appear to be an extended family. The men are thick necked and beefy, and their sausage fingers adorned with chunky rings cradle iphones.  Most of them have fierce black mustaches, some have orange colored strings attached to their wrists and some have necklaces.  They speak to one another in a rough, grating dialect.  They have come here to Kamakhya, one of India’s major Hindu temples for a pilgrimage.  As the aircraft takes off, right at the moment of wheels-up, one of them shouts “Kamakhya Maiya Ki” and the others respond in resounding unison, “Jai”. Onwards to Delhi.

When the aircraft lands in Delhi I have a text message awaiting me.  It is the name and number of the driver of the car that we had rented. Thakur was waiting for us outside with my name on a placard. And when you are hitting the badlands of Delhi it is good idea to go with a man named Thakur.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Helmand, an Afghan restaurant in Cambridge, MA.


Afghan restaurants have always been around in the United States, though they have never received the widespread attention that Indian restaurants have, instead enjoying an exotic popularity amongst a small crowd.  Helmand sits in a quiet block off of the Galleria mall near Kendall square in Cambridge.  On Friday night, I flew in from DC and M drove up from Westchester.  We then left our tiredness behind and stepped into this attractive restaurant after a bracing and brief walk in weather that had been long overdue after a brutal winter.  The restaurant was packed.  Our table for two was squeezed between two others, and we were an array of three pairs of couples on three parallel tables that symbolically represented the passage of life.  The couple to our left appeared to be students in their mid twenties, likely on a first date, speaking @ 60 words per minute, extensively making use of the word “like”, often simply as a momentum booster to the conversation like a little conversational whip to keep the dialogue going.  We, middle-aged, spoke at around 10-15 words per minute.  And the septuagenarian couple to our right kept largely silent, pulling along @ ~ 1 word per minute.

Regardless of age or vocal temperament, the Afghan food indoctrinated us all, and there appeared to be contentment across all three tables.  We shared two soups—The Shorwa, with chunks of softened lamb, a light nourishing stock, black eyed peas and pieces of carrots, turnips and beans; and the Mashawa, a slightly more viscous lamb stock soup thickened by yogurt, slightly tangy, and with chickpeas in it.  For an appetizer, we had Kaddo, pulverized sweetish baked pumpkin paste with minced beef on top.  You had it with Afghan flatbread (similar to Naan), cooked on the hot surfaces of a clay, or mud oven.  The sweet-saltish taste of the Kaddo is unexpectedly interesting and very different from Indian food.  As main entrée we shared a Chowpan, or the rack of lamb on a bed of pallow rice and sautéed eggplants.  Pallow is the Afghan variant from the Indian pulao, though the Afghan version is closer to the Persian, with the use of saffron and the slightly drier texture of the rice.  Compared to Indian dishes, this is a parallel universe of equivalents: similar sounding names with some variation in preparation—the dwopiaza/dopiaza, banjan/baigan (eggplant), bendi/bhendi (okra), and so on and so forth. Compared to Indian cooking, Afghan food is less spiced, more grilled, and with more liberal use of fruit and nuts.  I feel the food allows the taste of the meats and the vegetable to come through better.  The rack of lamb was as rack of lamb is in all cultures.  Regardless of its accoutrements, it is at the end the quality of the meat and when it is taken off of the heat that matters, and in that regard Helmand came through with flying colors.
We ended our meals with sheerekh, homemade Afghan ice cream with a flavor of saffron and pistachio and decorated with figs and nuts. 

Helmand was impressive and there is good reason that late into the night it remained filled with diners.  Our hotel concierge, when asked for directions to Helmand, informed us that she had never heard anything bad about the place.  I will not provide an exception to that.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Trip to India Feb 2014

Sitting in the aircraft at JFK in New York, the tension monkey begins descending from your back. For me it builds over days prior to a trip to India—the packing and sorting, the turning off of the hot water line to the water heater before you leave kind of thing. I have taken similar trips to other countries often, but a trip to India always feels different. It is mental. It goes back thirty years to my first trip here. I arrived in Portland with my passport in a hidden pocket that my mother had sewn into my vest, and two suitcases secured firmly with rope because my mother mistrusted Indian suitcase lock technology. A few days later my elegant friend Ravi Vemuri, a fellow student arrived with nothing except three bespoke suits and two lungis. You start connecting the dots through these years of travelling to India. Gone, mostly, is the innocence of travelers exposed for the first time to western ways. Today, the passengers are more urbane and worldly wise. I recall the ghosts of fellow travellers from trips past. The Indian man, deported by return post from New York, looking lost in Schiphol, with no ability to speak English and a look of terror on his face. His voice cracked and eyes watered in gratitude when I helped him make a phone call. Or the unruly gang of “carriers” on the Singapore-Calcutta route plying video-recorders that they would sell in Calcutta at a profit.

There is something good to be said about Air India. The seats in economy seem roomier. The food is good and the staff is polite. As long as plan A is working your travel will be enjoyable. Unfortunately, if things go wrong, they are not great with plan B. Flying Air India as often as I have, I have learned a few tricks. You may find that a bathroom in the rear displays an “out-of-order” sign. Go right in. This is the one the staff keeps for themselves.

I spend a brief night in Delhi in transit staying in Gurgaon and visit Sahara Mall. In the mid-2000s, Sahara Mall was a brand new chammak-challo mall all a-glitter. When I had visited a few times then, young couples, probably migrants from the rural areas here for jobs, would scour the mall and test out its escalators, and the women would extend tentative, painted toenail feet onto the moving step, one hand on their husband’s arms. The Haldiram confectionary on the ground floor buzzed with energy. Today the mall is past its peak. There is a thin coat of grime on surfaces and the cheap, synthetic interior construction materials and veneers have sagged. Stepping outside the mall we wait for our car. Enormous buildings rise out of the dusty Delhi scrubland, and there is construction rubble everywhere. It is a bit cold, but I am grateful to have escaped the frigid New York air.

Joe Biden called New York’s La Guardia airport a third world airport.  It must have been a manner of speech, or else he has not been observant of third world airports recently.  While New York takes away from its investment in civic facilities, the cities of India (and China) have been heading in the opposite direction, and it shows.  Delhi airport is a sleek reincarnation of its sloppy marble interior of the past with little of the randomness that is the stereotypical hallmark of Indian public facilities. You pay for this—three coffees and two bags of chips cost us about the equivalent of eight dollars. 

Here, when things don't work, I am always directed to people who are fountains of optimism.  This is not by chance, because it has happened every time.  When the SIM card doesn’t work, I am told that the server is down, not to worry, that at the most it will be back online within 2 hours.  When it still doesn’t work, I am told on the phone with 100% confidence that it was just a matter of popping out the SIM and reinserting it –so confident was the support “executive” on the line that, in fact, he saw no reason to hold while I tried this out. 

As we waited to be picked up at Delhi airport, a troika of late model luxury sedans swooped in, picked up a mixture of Indians and foreigners and then departed. The lead car, a Rolls Royce decked with ceremonial flowers, was followed by a Porsche Panamera and a big Jaguar.  Likely Pappu was wedding Mannu, and it would be, like many things here, an announcement of glitter and money.  The celebration of wealth and status here is robustly public—the airports have large hoardings publicizing the titles of the top officers of the nation who are exempt from security considerations or of paying toll.  Some people are often mysteriously ushered in while others wait patiently in line.  There is a placid acceptance of hierarchy among the public and an overbearing assumption of it on the part of the entitled. It is easy to understand the rising support for Kejriwal after a few days here.

The road into Guwahati from Borjhar airport cuts through the University of Guwahati.  Buildings and departments lie set back from the road.  We pass the Departments of Chemistry, of Statistics and of Biotechnology. The Centre for Eastern Studies is a sturdy building of unpainted concrete and nondescript glass and steel windows, set on a patch of land with an untended driveway leading through it.  A solitary small car is parked in front and a few scattered students walk by. A three wheeler carts a mound of hay ahead of us on the road.  Set in a background of green fields, It is an idyllic setting for leisurely academia. Perhaps the professor just returned from his afternoon lunch and is slowly sipping a cup of Assam tea. The wheels of learning crank slowly but surely, like molasses through this lazy Assam afternoon.  By all realistic measures, the Indian education system has been a success.  Here in Guwahati, in one of the remote parts of the country, all the facilities are available, at least at the undergraduate level, that this will never be a rate limiting step for someone with talent and motivation.

Arriving home, I head straight to my 90-year-old father who was sleeping.  When he awakens, he cannot recognize me. This is the first time this has happened.  I gently nudge his memory and mention my name.  It takes a few seconds for his face to turn into a broad smile, and then into an expression of extreme happiness.  He then starts speaking. He enquires about the New York winter and proceeds to tell me did I know that New York City had had its coldest temperatures in 118 years?  His memories come flooding back, precise in their content, all this from a sleep awakened start where he could not recognize his own son.  It is fascinating how the mind works and what it is that old age does.  Is it a loss of memory, or is it simply a slowing of the memory retrieval process (latency), which I am inclined to believe was the case here.

Guwahati is a city inside which villages flow like tributaries.  Within the din of traffic noise and congestion, there are little patches where tambul (betel nut) and coconut trees grow and tradesmen clear land with primitive hand tools.  Big multinational showrooms and shops line the main thoroughfare, but next to it there may be an old Assam style one-storey house with plastered thatch roofs and a tin roof. 

I am here to visit family and visiting intermittently as I do, it feels at times like taking stock of the passage of life.  Six brothers, one of them my father, shared a plot of land here more than 65 years ago, and the six brothers came back at different points in life to build their houses on this land and live here.  Forty years back I would visit as a boy and these visits were a high point.  The brothers had either just retired or were in the prime of their lives.  The neighborhood was jubilant, the inhabitants were close to one another, and as is normal when extended families live in proximity, spiced with the occasional social drama.  Twenty years ago, when we started visiting regularly with our children, some of the brothers had sold their houses and left. But there were still many relatives left, there were other renters who were also part of the community, and the place overran with children.  Doors remained open in the evenings and people visited one another as if playing musical chairs between houses.  Then, over the past decade relatives aged, they couldn’t walk about, and the younger generation left for jobs outside of Assam.  Visits became like tuning in to a cricket broadcast intermittently to hear about the wickets that had been lost.  Old age, one aunt said, is not something she would wish on anybody.  Some of the houses were taken down and newer multistoried buildings arose, less dependent upon constant repairs. A charm had been lost of  an L shaped dirt road and a coterie of relatives around it.  Commercial offices moved into these buildings occupying floors.  A giant Kirloskar generator was placed out by the side of the road.  This is the price of time. 

One late morning I watch three tradesmen take down a large coconut tree.  One of them sat on a brick meticulously sharpening the teeth of a large two-man hand saw with a file.  The other positioned himself about two thirds of the way up the tree and hacked away at a 18 inch diameter trunk with a “Dao”(a large curved knife), chipping away the wood till the trunk had necked down to a diameter of about 6 inches. At that point a third colleague tugged at a rope that had been secured to the top third of the trunk, till it dropped to the ground.  The Dao-man held tight to the rest of the tree while the big section fell, and then I saw him expertly dismount: a dangerous task without safety precautions, carried out by a man well past fifty with minimal equipment.

Guwahati is old fashioned enough that the breed of the old timer, nocturnal “chichkey chor” or common thief still exists.  The marks of their opportunistic visits exist in our building. One night some years ago a thief tried to remove the bathroom window rods to get in—he was only partially successful.  A few months ago, another tried to climb the roof of the house late at night to get at some construction supplies that were stored there.  On the way down he broke a ledge, fell with a huge commotion and then leapt away to cries of chor chor.  The classic thief of the old days was a wiry and fast guy who would step into action after applying mustard oil all over his body.  This way he could slither out of any hold that a pursuer might attempt on him.  Legend is that, in a double whammy and in a nod to perhaps the ancient animal kingdom ritual of marking territory, the classic thief relieved himself at the scene of the crime before leaving the victim’s house.

Winter in Assam is a time for red kantha stitched (quilted) Lleps, cheap Chinese nylon mosquito nets and the winter sun to bask in.  At mid morning there is a hint of fog in the air and, sitting outside on the porch with a cup of tea and a book, shafts of the winter sunlight warms the skin like a shot of whiskey.  Single vendors come by hawking their wares with baskets on their shoulders, walking along the lane that ends at our gate.  At the end of the cul-de-sac they announce themselves, tilt their heads up to glance upwards at the balconies for potential customers, and then turn around to leave. A few crows and birds chirp nearby.  The neighborhood residents are busy: a lady hangs clothes to dry, a young man parks his motorcycle and heads into a building.  A father loudly teaches history to his young son and a maidservant washes dishes in another house. The day goes on this way, plied with cup after cup of Assam tea—a tea drinker here may consume over ten cups of tea a day, staying all the while constantly in defense against the swarms of mosquitoes breeding on open drains.   When evening comes, the lights go on in the multinational stores, on mannequins and posters of Indian models who are carefully chosen to look white, or “international” as the aphorism goes.  A few hundred yards away, in a little rustic tributary of the city, a muezzin’s prayer begins, a deep soulful voice over loudspeakers that harkens the evening and bids the day farewell.

A flyover elevates itself from the chaos around the no. 4 bridge area in the north of Calcutta, whisks the rider past shoulder level views of Victoria Memorial, the La Martiniere schools, the Belle View Nursing Home, and then descends from its regal perch releasing the rider into the area around Rabindra Sadan and the race track. Where does one find romance in a city? Is it in perfect landscapes, or is it in the repeated inconsistencies of a place, its hubris and false pretensions, its worship of past glories, its scientists, artists, playwrights, its filth, its humanity and sense of humor, a city whose irregularities collectively present themselves like some delightful fuzzball of disorderliness? So when you come back to see new flyovers, metros, and Armageddon like visions of giant half built constructions looming in a translucent landscape of smoke and dust along the Eastern Bypass in a metropolis that has repeatedly (since the mid 1700s) been reviled as a city in shambles and near death, you say that this, is romance. A romance made easier, because you will be here for just a week. There are many little things that I have forgotten about Calcutta. Like going for an early dinner at 6 pm to 6 Ballygunge Place and learning that nobody dines that early here. But it is still the place where I feel most comfortable, where I feel that were things to go wrong, I would know what to do.

I was driving with a European colleague, through North Calcutta and headed to Rajabazaar, also in the North, to the Calcutta University Institute of Radio Physics where we were to give lectures. We were in a traditionally muslim area and without knowing this my colleague likened the place to his experiences in Cairo, except, as he said, he saw signs of new life and growth here, younger people, “more hope” as he specifically put it. The Institute of Radio Physics is a little known gem of a place. Before the 1990s the Institute had possibly the best undergraduate physics or engineering physics program in the country. It admitted only about 20 students each year. Almost all of those entering would have turned down other prestigious engineering college admissions. A handful of those twenty would have been schoolboy legends able to walk into any department at any IIT. Today this program, while still good, does not attract similar talent, and of those graduating over 80% join the IT sector. A small collection of buildings in this area, all part of Calcutta University probably constitutes the most fertile piece of real estate for Indian physics and chemistry—J.C. Bose, Satyen Bose, Raman, S. Chandrashekhar, P.C. Ray, M.N. Saha, all spent time in the laboratories here at some point in their careers. They were a varied cast of characters: Bose’s major contribution came from his fearlessly intuitive leap in the dark, Chandrashekar was elegant, meticulous and precise (he spent time in Raman’s lab in 1928), Raman’s arrogance made him insufferable, and the polymath M.N. Saha rose from a poor shopkeeper family where some of his siblings did not matriculate high school.

“I have not received my copy of the State Bank of India calendar in the post, and would like to go home today with a copy please”. It was a simple but firm request made by my 86 year old father-in-law to the State Bank official at the Salt Lake branch in Calcutta and the stymied official did not know what to do with this anachronistic request. My father-in-law had been receiving the calendar by regular post for decades and this was one of the privileges of the bank account holder, or so it felt to him. Cashing money from an account or depositing a check was always made in person at the local branch office. It was a ritual, part business and part habit, where you met the branch manager, exchanged pleasantries, filled out forms in long hand, updated your passbook and took care of your money. But these were no longer your father’s State Bank officials, they were people who zipped into work, did their work on desktops and laptops, and maintained their calendars on smart phones. Banking has changed for good, but it has disrupted the serene life of the older gentleman, for whom a trip to the bank one late morning is part of the prism through which his life refracts, and following which he might return home detouring through Sen-Mahasay for a box of palm jaggery sandesh, or via the local pharmacy which was always a fun place for a medicine aficionado like him. One by one, he posed his question to 3 different officials at the bank. They had little inkling of the role that the State Bank may have had in measuring the arrow of time in so many middle class households over decades. In this busy word of constant communication they were sympathetic, a trifle indulgent, but they had no time. It took one more visit a day later, and a meeting with the branch manager to get a spare copy that was fortunately lying around. There is no place for an old log in a fast, flowing river.