It is late in the night, Mumbai is emerging from a flooding storm, and I am on the road to Pune, 130 kms away. I have just landed from a flight from New York and it has been tiring. After an hour, we have cleared the clutter of Mumbai and climbed onto the Mumbai-Pune expressway—six fast lanes that thread through the western ghats in a combination of well banked roads and cavernous tunnels. The roads are full of trucks at this late hour. There was a time when trucks, or “lorries”, were puny compared to their behemoth western counterparts. Brightly painted signs over their bodywork reading “OK Tata”, “Honk Please”, “Use Dipper at Night” made up for in spunk what they lacked in size. Alongside these vehicles lurching under their tarpaulin covered cargo , I see newer, torquier trucks, huge side view mirrors hanging from one piece brushed aluminum drops, large flatbeds with names like Maersk on plain grey siding in the staid, efficient style of the pragmatic west. Cars on Indian roads underwent their transformation several years ago and the old Hindustan Ambassador is rarely seen on highways, replaced by sleeker, safer cars better equipped to handle the . This transitional moment appears imminent for trucks today—little things like rear brake lights, almost absent in the trucks we trailed on a trip to Agra in 2005, are today omnipresent.
Lonavala passes by, I see the ubiquitous McDonalds arch by a rest stop. In the distance, the land and hillsides are dotted with the yellow glow of sodium vapor lamps scattered through a dusty haze, giving the Indian scenery its characteristic nighttime tint—these lamps largely absent in the west in such extensive proportion—neither a cold blue, not the warmth of the red, but an obfuscating peela color smearing the dimensionality of the space between the road and the hillsides. We arrive in Pune in the early hours of the morning to empty streets, limping street dogs slinking out of the shadows like liquid droplets, by rumble jumble construction and then onwards to the government guesthouse I was staying in. I try to wake the night clerk, prostrate across the counter—he shrugs, makes a half hearted attempt at rising, loses his resolve, turns around and goes back to sleep. It takes me ten minutes to be able to sign out the keys to my room.
I am here to present an invited talk at the 60th. Jubilee celibrations of the National Chemical Labs, an ironical event for someone who nearly failed his chemistry exams before leaving the country 24 years ago. Inbetween meeting sessions, I take a walk down Pashan Road to the school where I spent my elementary and middle school years, down whizzing traffic and chrysanthemums and gulmohars, with the bittersweet memory of a place you realize was your own at one time, where you can see flat topped hills whose rocks you climbed beyond the unrecognizable road; where you are turned back by the guard at your own school as an unknown, yet you recognize the light beige uniforms of the children with the embroidered emblem that hasn’t changed in 35 years. In the evening I take a car to visit my old neighborhood. The gates to the compound are, surprisingly, the same ones I swung on thirty five years ago. I go by our old flat and I speak to the gentleman who lives there. The metal railings, the houses and the verandahs remain—perhaps slightly rundown, but there is a sense of reinforcing permanence—these are the easels of life upon which so many sketches have been drawn: a set of people who briefly converged onto this campus before dispersing again, only to be replaced by the next cast of characters. I take my leave from the old campus and head on to meet an old friend and her family. We talk, we drink, we go for dinner, and they drop me off late at night by the guest house, on a sweet smelling Indian summer night, a bit tipsy as I walked under the neon lights in a light breeze with the gulmohar trees around me.
The drive back to Mumbai early in the morning allows me to take in the landscape of the ghats. There is a drizzling rain, the cloud and fog has not lifted over the hills and mostly what I see is verdant landscape and wet, shiny igneous rocks. Vehicles remain lanebound, there are no two wheelers or pedestrians and the journey proceeds without the characteristic drama of Indian streets. I fall into a conversation with the driver. He makes two trips a day, every day: Pune-Mumbai-Pune. Polite, quiet, and helpful these guys are giving in a way that they don’t have to be. This is something that I have repeatedly experienced in Indian trips, where service personnel will go out of their way to help you. On the flight into Mumbai I had long conversation with the Air India flight purser—a lifelong Mumbaiker with the light eyes of a Maharashtrian. He was doing the job, he said, for six years and had joined out of a desire to see the world. After getting married recently, travel made things tough on the family side. He did a flight, followed by a break of 4 days. At the same time, the flying habituated him—the rest period left him itching for the next flight out. I asked him about jetlag. After so many years, he said, it was not a problem any more—the body went to sleep on demand.
Mobile phone costs—at about a rupee a minute-- are around the lowest in the world, triggering a mass adaptation. Almost everyone I meet has a cellphone. Important looking people have two cell phones. Cellphones are always handled with an air of casualness. They ring with custom soundbites--the busy man will glance at it, and just as you thought he was going to let it ring, he would bring it to his ears in a slow, arc, lower his voice to a “hello”. Others will throw their heads back and allow themselves a slighter wider, "haelo". Professional conversations are rarely elaborate, if it is a driver the next sentence will usually be something like “Ha Bandra mein”: that would be the end of the conversation.
From Mumbai I head to Dhaka and overnight at Kolkata. I have dinner at the hotel bar, and over a pint of Kingfisher get talking with the bartender. He is well spoken, educated at a hotel management institute, and ambitious. Jobs in the service sector have multiplied. In 1980 there was one hotel management institute in Kolkata, today there are many. I ask him about the drinking preferences of patrons. About 60% prefer hard liquor, 30% will have beer, and 10% are wine drinkers. Among hard liquors, whiskey is the most popular and among whiskies, Black Label sells the most. Single malts are available though not as popular, not due to a lack of buying power, but rather awareness. I ask him about the big names of my time—Peter Scot, Diplomat—Indian whiskies from the 80s. Not at his bar, he says. What about rums and the legendary Old Monk, the Indian army rum? Losing ground to Bacardi. Among beers, bottled products are more popular than draught, and Kingfisher is by far the most popular. Draught beers are unpasteurized, therefore need careful handling and have limited shelf life—as a result of this, their availability and popularity has been limited. Wine drinkers are a small number, though there is a concerted effort at raising wine awareness through tasting sessions and classes. Here you see the machinations of corporate in influencing acquired tastes. Get these guys to start becoming snobbish about wine correlate it to culture, and there is a whole new business opportunity. Gone are the days of Golconda Red and Golconda White—vinegary tonics of the past, labeled as wines in a fit of optimism. Indian wines, such as Sula are much better, though uneven in quality. My bartender wishes to start his own restaurant some day and for this he is now gaining experience. He hopes to travel abroad for a few years, make some money, then return to open his business. He is curious about my life and how I ended up abroad after growing up in Kolkata. In me, he sees an outward bound trajectory that he would like to emulate, in him I see a countenance mixed with youth and the characterizing sense of self confidence vested into his generation. In the years past, these same young men would be unemployed, or underemployed sitting around at street corners, drinking tea, eyeing women, social misfits waiting in line for the few jobs that came through.
The next day I am in Dhaka, Bangladesh. An excruciatingly slow immigration line. “Computer slow hoiya gesey aazkey” (computers have slowed down today), says an official, in a passive acceptance of . I miss my first meeting due to delays--Dhaka today is like the Kolkata of 15 years ago. Random traffic patterns, immobilizing traffic jams, worn vehicles whose bodies bear the mark of a thousand body shop assaults, Dhaka serves for me as a reference marker for highlighting Kolkata’s progress. There are the little things indicative of India’s progressive prosperity. Government immigration forms, handed out on the aircraft before landing, are no longer on cut rate, blotty paper, No longer do I see decrepit public transport buses with passengers hanging out of the doorways. Commercial vehicles that are more than 15 years old will soon be banned from the streets. Traffic patterns are routed with a system of one-way traffic rules and lights. Slowly, but surely, this unruly mob of motorists have begun to stay within their lanes. I am struck by the warmth of the people in Dhaka. Food is an obsession, fish is their passion—and among the fish the Hilsa rules supreme. Somewhat similar to shad, hilsa leads the bulk of its life in the ocean, then migrating upstream the river from the delta to spawn—as far as a thousand kilometers. The fat content defines the taste, fish that have migrated further upstream have a higher fat content and highly sought, particularly the ones caught on the Padma river. I have fish like there was no tomorrow in Dhaka. Grilled, curried, fish head mixed in with lentils, fish balls, small fried anchovy like fish, fried steaks of hilsa.
After a whirlwind 8 days, I am back in New York. A leafy, sunny morning at the Pleasantville farmers market, it is a world apart, as Audis and Volvos drive up into the parking lot to shop with farmers driving down early in the morning from the agricultural hinterlands of New York City. As the metropolises in the developing world shift to the conveniences of mass manufactured broiler chickens and vegetables ready to throw into the refrigerator, there is a quiet movement, albeit expensive at this point, in the country that started this all, to reverse this trend.