Monday, September 1, 2008

Travelogue, trip to India Aug 19-31

Aug 19-21:

This is the first time that I am taking the new Air India non-stop to Mumbai, following in the footsteps of M and the boys who left on Saturday and are now in Kolkata. I am looking forward to this trip. Fourteen hours non-stop to Mumbai. Spend the night at a hotel near the airport, where I have a business meeting to take care of, followed by an early morning flight to Kolkata. I hear there have been heavy rains in Kolkata and that the city has been immobilized by a bandh. The non-stop directs are smaller, Boeing 777 aircraft, brand new, and the Air India service is courteous and well meaning, though not the most effective. I ask whether I need to pick up my checked in bags at Mumbai or whether they will be transited directly to Kolkata. I get three different answers—covering all possibilities—one of the respondents tells me he is 101% sure of his answer. I have two books with me, Amitav Ghosh’s Glass Palace, and “Confessions of a Mafia Hit Man”, something I pick up at the airport bookstore.

Flight was uneventful. I learn a bit about a famous mafia hitman who loved to leave his victims to the mercy of feeding rats, and from the Hindustan Times I learn that Priyanka Chopra felt overdressed in shorts and something called “tank tops” while she was in Miami. Such are the concerns of the day. Headed to an airport hotel and found out that India will get at least two more Olympic medals. Gave me goosebumps. The country will be on fire tomorrow. A new Bollywood movie starring one of Nepotism Kumar’s grandsons will come out with a movie, “Ek Sona Do Bronze”. “Plastic” Chatterjee will play the female lead and the stars will be feted at Dhamakas across New Jersey. Noted on the Columbia University website (where I teach), that two or their alumni have won medals as well. Two for Columbia, three for India. This looks like a turning point for Indian sport. I read a compelling article pointing out that activities with a comprehensive coaching program have done well. The boxers have their own dedicated coaches and extensively competed abroad, the rifle shooter—financially solvent himself—has a dedicated coach, physio, and trainer.

It takes a few days to get used to the pace and flavor every time I visit. There are little scenes that tug you towards the continuum that one was part of before leaving. A brief glimpse of a man emerging from a narrow lane, backlit by a single sodium lamp through the rising smog, the milky elaichi laced tea from a stall, the smell of disinfectant coming off of marble public spaces. I am waiting at the gate of “Chatrapati Shivaji Airport” for my Indian Airlines flight to Kolkata. Gad Ala, pun Singha Gela”, Shivaji was reputed to have said—“We got the fort but lost the lion”—when he captured a fort (Sinhagad) near Pune, but lost his trusted general.

As I had imagined, the morning papers have gone hysterical with national pride at the 3 medal performance of India at the Olympics. There is a sense today, riding India’s economic success, that this is a new generation who perceive themselves as the equal of anybody, anywhere. That this feeling extends into the sporting world as well, seems implied in many of the articles that I read.

Service personnel permeate the hotel and the airport. All kinds of customer assistance booths line the domestic airport. The staff are courteous, and quick to give assurances that do not seem to carry far. Everybody is winging it. The ground staff at the gate scratches my printed seat number and scrawls another number in by hand. Inside the aircraft, a second crew member scratches that out, and restores my original seat number back. Passengers are upset because seat numbers have been switched around. But, things settle back in the aircraft, we leave around the expected departure time and soon I am sitting with a south Indian breakfast served by the matronly Air India air-hostess. Which brings me to an interesting point about sexism in the Indian airline industry. The government run Air India flights had seasoned, extremely nice attendants who seem like they were middle class housewives. Looking around Mumbai airport, however, it did feel that the requisite for an attendant’s job in some of the other private airlines required being able to slip into a size 4 dress, and carry it off.

Aug. 22 –25

Kolkata is my favorite city to watch from the air while the aircraft prepares for landing. Part of it is the anticipation for the city where I spent a dozen of my formative years. Part of it is because it still looks like a cluster of villages stitched together in green. Circular patterned brick making kilns dot the approach to the airport. The land is a jumble of shapeless mofussil style brick constructions, palm trees and ponds. I get a SIM card for my cell phone and sign up for a prepaid taxi at the airport. The main road from the airport to the city, VIP Road, once a laid back tree lined avenue has beed swallowed up by the crowds of the congested city. After a drive full of stops and starts, I walk into the house to a drenching rainfall.

The next morning we prepare to head to Guwahati. Kolkata, for a certain section of society, continues its upmarket march. I seamlessly pick up a Wi-Fi connection at Salt Lake, I message with my colleagues across the world to take care of some business. The young men and women I see walking around the upscale mall share a single currency in dress and demeanour with their counterparts across the globe. Guwahati, I expect would be a world apart. We take the new 4 lane high way through New Town to the airport. The highway cuts through swathes of vast greenery and palm trees--beyond, the green merges with a darkened, rain laden, moody Bengali sky. Cows graze by the sides of the roads, groups of people in twos and threes walk or cycle by the roadside, there is the smell of wet earth in the air. Amidst this, is an explosion of construction. Clusters of highrises sprout across the landscape with telltale cranes hovering over rooftops. Finished buildings sport marquee corporate names. I have no doubt this time that New Town will be the Gurgaon of Kolkata. Slowly, but surely, the center of gravity of this city is moving Eastward.

Borjhar airport, Guwahati, is my third airport in three days, and the first one not named after a warrior. Due to security concerns, this leafy suburban airport teems with heavily armed soldiers and their presence has a quietening effect on the people milling outside. The road back to the city runs along the great Brahmaputra river, magnificent in its scope, bordering this haphazard city where cars, two wheelers, trucks, roads and lanes are jumbled up and shoved in like a suitcase full of dirty clothes on a return trip. Guwahati has one of the most spectacular locations that I have seen. Nestled in a valley, ringed by hills, the expanse of a wide river as companion, this is the largest city of the north-east, the region a step-child of the central government that historically never did receive the attention that northern India did.

The morning’s papers bring news about unrest in West Bengal. Tata’s Nano factory, set up in West Bengal, uses land appropriated from farmers by the government. The farmers led by a particularly stubborn and maverick politician have caused unrest and the Tatas in return, have bluntly suggested that they will pull out of their Rs. 1500 crore investment if things do not improve. The state government, with its current policy of promoting heavy industrial investment, and a history of supporting labor unrest in the past, cannot afford such a high profile investment falling through. It is difficult to take sides here.

This morning a cousin of mine, a tea company executive, came by to. Wild elephants roam his compound, rhinos are seen across the road from his house, and tigers are not too far away. Blessed with striking natural beauty, resources, and wildlife, Assam can feel remote and long ignored by the rest of the country. This is the place that my parents call home, and even though I have never lived here for any extended period of time, I strongly feel myself to be a part of. There has been a multi-country agreement to revive the old Stilwell Road named after an American general and which American--mostly black--soldiers built through Assam and into Burma during the second World War to move supplies from the railhead at Margharita. The aim today is to create a south-eastern commercial hub that links all the way to Kunming province in China. The administration envisions Assam as India’s link to the emerging vitality of South East Asia and land trade with China. Assam had settlements by the Ahoms, who migrated from Thailand more than a thousand year ago. Assamese food has the tanginess of Thai soups, the silks and embroideries are strikingly similar to what I have seen in Thai restaurants. Thai accented English has lilts and inflections that sound like an Assamese speaking English.

Manmohan Singh is due in Assam today to inaugurate a medical facility and college. Several years ago a new Indian Institute of Technology was created in Guwahati. I can seen the permeating effects of a world class institution on local education today. Most undergraduates at the IIT here are not from Assam. However, the post-graduate and Ph.D. programs have an opportunity to be fed by students from small local colleges around the state. The brighter ones among them then go on educational institutions abroad, thereby plugging Assam into the international scientific farm system.

There is much construction in Guwahati since the last time that I was here a year and a half ago. The Mall madness appears to have arrived here as well. The main avenue called the GS Road is lined with Pantaloons, Mainland China, and Reebok. A mall named “Big Bazaar” gives away 5 kilos of sugar if you buy more that a thousand rupees in merchandise. This, we learn from the driver of our rental car—a young kid who was there to buy some jeans rand gave away the supply of sugar that he received. This is not something that would have been common twenty five years ago, and I see first hand the effects of trickle down economics.

Aug 26-27:

Back in Kolkata. The Tata Nano factory episode has captivated the media. Mysterious has been the appearance of a politician from Uttar Pradesh, Amar Singh, who, in supporting the strikes, appears to have his own axe to grind. Rumors abound—perhaps he wants to lure Nano to UP; perhaps he is aligned with one of Tata’s rivals. In an address to industrialists, the West Bengal chief minister announces with refreshing candour that he unfortunately comes from a political party that supports the notion of strikes. As in other places, this is turning into a battle of egos with the true interests of the affected on hold. I have not seen any Indian car get the kind of attention as the Nano has in the international automotive press. Over the years the Hindustan Ambassador has received occasional attention, as a quirky, throwback vehicle. The Nano has been called a technical masterpiece, the biggest innovation in automobiles since the Ford’s turn of the century mass production concept. Anyone can build a great car for a hundred thousand dollars, one article noted. But to engineer one for less than 2500 dollars requires skills. They draw attention to the single windshield wiper of the Nano. True, the Mercedes E class had such a wiper at one time. But that required a symphony of motors and a component cost that probably equalled that of the entire Nano, they point out. If the factory at Singur can survive this political onslaught, it could be the beginnings of a great display of engineering. This is not just an assembly of knocked down parts like the Maruti, nor the ho-hum re-engineering of an economy car like the Indica, but a blue print for something that has not been done before.

Yesterday was a full day of business meetings. Between meetings I sat with a colleague at the Grand hotel bar with a pint of Kingfisher draught beer. An older jazz guitarist—the live music for the evening—was fingering through the scales on his acoustic guitar, waiting for his colleague to show up. He had a wizened face, with crows feet by his eyes, and I thought that he was Anglo-Indian though age made it one of those hard to place faces. As I got up I caught his attention and with the slightest nod of his head he acknowledged my departure. He had noticed that I was enjoying his music. I was sorry to get up and leave but I had a meeting that had been arranged that evening.

With the business and the pleasant surprise of meeting a fellow alumni behind me, I headed back in my hired car listening to “Radio Mirchi”. The night traffic along the eastern bypass was lighter, like the Kolkata traffic of the mid nineties. It is a pleasant surprise that I could recognize most of the songs -- they were from the seventies and early eighties—and I conclude that the current generation cares for this kind of music. Watching TV at home, I see an ad where a white woman chases a white man ostensibly wearing “Charagh Din” shirts. Mannequins and posters in the department stores are of European, or as they like to say—“international”, models. We view this fascination and discuss it. Are these vestiges of a sense of inferiority from the colonial days? Or are these simply an embrace of things considered glamorous for some other, innocent reason? I recall observing this phenomena in Singapore in the late eighties and being mildly amused by it—this was a rarely observed sight in India 20-25 years ago.

I am sitting on a sofa at FabIndia in Kakurgachi, reflecting on the furniture displayed for sale, waiting while M finishes picking out some fabrics. We, in India, never learned to make decent wood furniture. The collection at FabIndia might well have been called “Sacrilege in Sheesham”. Crooked, disjointed, poorly finished—each piece creaking with agony at its own ugliness. Earlier, during the British times there was some skill and technique and I have seen gorgeous turn of the century pieces. Those briefly acquired skills seem to have long gone.

The upscale stores and the mall are full of employees—young kids in store uniforms, a cell phone in their pockets--they seem insistent about responding in English. They are eager to help, three of them at a time attempting the task of one with intermittent success, and some of them are very bright and clearly destined for bigger and better things. They answer with confidence, though not necessarily with accuracy, but have a disarming innocence and approach their jobs with energy. Their biceps grow stronger by the day swinging open large thick solid glass doors for their customers, and you tend not to get excessively ticked off for their occasional pointless responses. You leave it to their youthful enthusiasm. These kids are filling jobs that were not there two decades back. Without these jobs they would be sitting in lungis by the para more, wolf whistling the girls who go by.

Aug 28-30

I am in Delhi now, in a speeding vehicle on a 4 lane highway, heading into Noida, across the Jamuna river. The earth is flat on both sides, with dry scrub and undergrowth in parts, and occasional wheat fields with farmers huddled around irrigation channels. A new expresslane under construction heads off on the right towards Agra. As I approach the business district, there are the ubiquitous signs of construction. I see housing complexes, spiking out of what were once wheat fields or forests, replete with planned shopping and golf courses, with names like “Grand Woods”. I pass a police vehicle with flashers on the roof marked ‘Noida Highway Petrol Car”, the north Indian accented “Paetrol” urging the dropping of the “a” altogether. Noida is hot, busy, dusty, and expensive. Localities within the city have names such as alpha, beta, gamma, and pi. I explain to the driver the origin of these letters, and using the circular steering wheel as an example, we go over the meaning of pi in my broken, and his heavily north Indian accented, hindi. The creation of special economic zones across the country has created a boon for industry and Noida is but one example. For a country that almost went bankrupt in the early nineties, it is regions such as these that offer ratification for the creative deregulatory policies that the government initiated then. The rapid industrialization has in turn spawned the local education industry—there are in all about seventy colleges within Noida, with roughly half of them offering a technical degree, diploma, or certificate.

At night I go to Hauz Khas, to pick up M and the boys who were spending the day with one her close friends from school. Her friend’s husband is recovering from a serious automobile accident he had in Madhya Pradesh and recounted to us the absolute horror of the lack of healthcare in rural areas. Struck by a tractor trailer in the middle of nowhere, he had to be driven 6 hours and 200 kms to Bhopal, local doctors doing bare bones triage on the way till they could find a hospital.

The siege of Singur is now a subject of national interest. The Tatas will decide soon whether to uproot and move. Their adversary, Mamata Banerjee, who had pledged a peaceful demonstration, saw it broken within twenty four hours, and now wishes not to be perceived as a guarantor of non-violence. She is no Gandhi. The national media more or less views this as an act of self-destruction, where West Bengal is set to shoot itself in the foot. As this drama unfolds on the plains of Bengal, yet another spectacle plays out on cable television as the US presidential nominees work the masses at their conventions, these events so apart, yet similar in that they revolve around the fundamental emotional component of a relentless assault to garner the confidence of a naive public with shallow, blustery melodrama.

We head to the airport late tonight and after checking out of the hotel, we have driven to Gurgaon, to M’s brother’s house, through the clean, wide avenues of Delhi near Janpath and the diplomatic district. Gurgaon and Noida are the two satellite cities of Delhi, and Gurgaon is now the more developed, congested one. Sweepy, glass and steel sky scrapers with sculpted looks populate the business district. The residential neighborhood we are in is full of individual houses, obviously affluent. Immediately outside these toney buildings, the road is unkempt, there is a cluttered look with signs of disrepair. I go to a market in sector 14 to pick up some food on a Saturday afternoon, and the place looks like an international auto show for compact cars. Tiny cars spring out from every corner and every angle through the rising dust—Indian cars, Korean cars, Japanese cars, European cars. Two wheelers thread through the momentary openings between vehicles, women riding pillion, look like bandits with kerchiefs drawn across their faces. Big Boleros muscle in, threatening to scatter everything in their paths.

It is almost ten o’clock at night now and neither the heat, nor the humidity has let up. The car to the airport arrives within the next half an hour and we will head to the airport, ending what has been a short, hectic, trip. It has been a pleasure writing this journal, sometimes to while away the time on an airplane, sometimes to have something to do jetlagged in the dead of the night, and sometimes just to unwind after a long day.

After a relatively smooth transit through Indira Gandhi International Airport at Delhi—I am still debating whether this qualifies as an airport named after a warrior—we wait at the gate for the Air India non-stop flight to New York JFK. Security is tight and there are multiple checkpoints. In the final one, just before stepping onto the aircraft, a tall man looks at our boarding cards. He hands me my ticket back: I prepare to tuck it away, when he says “Rakhun Rakhun, shamney lagbey” (Keep it keep it, you will need to show it ahead). “Bangali?” I query, as I walk past his smiling acknowledgement.


  1. Well written Supratik. I particularly liked the comment about" The government run Air India flights had seasoned, extremely nice attendants who seem like they were middle class housewives. Looking around Mumbai airport, however, it did feel that the requisite for an attendant’s job in some of the other private airlines required being able to slip into a size 4 dress, and carry it off." Glad you enjoyed the AI flight. I myself did the Continental non-stop before the Air India non-stops started. Looking forward to KF, Jet and the big birds. Live in MD, where do you live?

  2. This was very enjoyable to read. You write well.