Saturday, February 12, 2011

Trip to Taipei

The giant tube of toothpaste that will take me to Taipei sits on the runway with summer green stripes across it.  It is a February afternoon and LAX looks crisp under a graded cocktail blue sky rimmed by haze around the horizon. Jets sparkle as they leap like cheetahs into the air: their hot exhausts makes the airfield shimmer like some African savannah through a long telephoto.  The sun has lifted the load of a winter’s worth of New York ice, I sit at the gate charging my laptop, buoyed by the clarity of Southern California weather.
Landing late at night in Taipei, I see dawn crack through a wall of glass in the hotel gym.  Taipei is what an Indian city will look like in 30 years.  Buildings lack long range order.  Neighborhoods have a mix of grimy  commercial buildings and honey smooth constructions of seamless sheet glass and steel.  You can see this just begin to happen in Kolkata, where—among a motley mix of trading shop—a glittering Sony store rises like a flawless mermaid from the decay; and then around this mermaid, sprout others till the road becomes a bipolar mixture of the ragtag and the perfect.

Humidity is in the air  and you feel its smell in the blast of the AC. You see its hand in the stained, dull brown concrete of buildings, in the linear patches of greenery projecting from cracks in the footpath.  I take a long walk one morning in the Taipei 101 neighborhood, a needle of a building that shoots into the clouds, and walk to the Sun Yat Sen Memorial Hall, built in 1972.  Khuswant Singh comes to mind. “Hoga sala koi Bungali doctor” is what his friend, the noted Pakistani lawyer Manzur Qadir, told him when asked about Sen, one of the great political leaders of 20th century Asia. 

It is the 15th day of the beginning of the Chinese New Year, and there is a festival going on in this Hall, with colorful exhibits in the courtyard outside.  Large tourist buses with names like, “Color Ful Tour Bus” have brought visitors—they appear to be outsiders, perhaps mainland Chinese, or folks from the small towns:  their joy is relaxing, their mannerism,  clothing, and plastic shopping bags remind me of  visitors from the mofussils.  All around me are the synchronous exhaust sounds of cars and two-wheelers.   This place reminds me so much of India! 
I take a walk in a quiet park in the Sun Yat Sen compound along a path that winds by a small pond with muddy water.  A man practices Chi. Two elderly women sit listening to music from a stereo, an old man bikes by humming the lines of the song.  This bowl of calm is abutted by highrises with AC units hanging out of windows, that would not be out of place on Camac Street or Rowdon Street.  It feels like the quiet afternoon that I had spent at Minto Park decades earlier, watching a water snake skim across the brown surface of its lake.

One night we go for dinner.  Taiwanese food (at least the kind we had) lacks the greasiness of Chinese food in the States.  Most of what we ate that night was braised or steamed.  This was a twelve course meal, each dish brought in small bowls, their names dripping seductively off the menu card, their slippery surfaces flirting with the chopsticks, names like Fish Maw Soup, Slow Braised Pork Belly with alternate layers of fat and meat, Steamed Lobster with Gherkin, Sweet Glutinous Rice bowl—food that stretches your belly to its elastic limits; you mimic the emotions of a mountaineer half way through his journey--exhausted, but you cannot give up the promise of what might lie ahead.  I have regarded food as a complicated gastronomical function with many, many frequency components.  The highest form of impact that the food can impart is to take you to a crescendo where you cannot distinguish, nor do you care about, the individual frequency components anymore; yet you do not lose sight of the richness and sophistication of this function.  This does not happen often—it happened at the Landis that night.

The day I leave, my friend picks me up at the hotel—I have not seen him in 15 years. We lunch at a hot pot place—a chain restaurant-- where you cook your own food in a steaming soup bowl, shabu-shabu style.  Inbetween immersing strips of pork into the bubbling broth, he tells me about Taiwan.   One of the 4 Asian tigers, it was recently surpassed by Korea on a per capita GDP basis.  Run by two political parties that seem to lock each other out by intransigence, it has some of the world’s largest technology companies in chipmaking, displays, and portable computers.  We speak of the past.  He left the US years back, traded the Midwest to move to Taiwan and start a company.  He did not make the kind of money he was hoping to, but learned a lot about the business, about manufacturing and selling.  He now headed a small high tech company and was excited about the future.  We had worked side by side for a few years, published a few papers together, and I remembered the dinner at his house one evening--a home cooked Chinese meal and a pale pink electric rice cooker with paintings of flowers on the side.  His son, an infant then, was now a college student--we sat there taking notes on the arrow of time, feeling much like the broth that by now had become rich, absorbing flavors of the vegetables, mushrooms, and meats brewing in it since the beginning of the meal.

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