Saturday, August 25, 2012

India trip part II: Guwahati, IIT Kharagpur, and meeting the master blouse maker

We reach Assam to witness the mass exodus of Assamese and North-Easterners from Bangalore and a couple of other cities—an example of the hysteria that can be triggered by exponentially propagating text messages. In retaliation for anti-Muslim violence in parts of Assam, a few North-Eastern Indians are attacked in Bangalore, Pune and Hyderabad.  Scared by circulating text messages forewarning of a large-scale attack, thousands return back to Assam in a matter of days clogging train stations.  The news makes headlines.  Eventually, Pakistan is blamed.

Guwahati is a dense city, yet the jungle is not far.  There is a wildlife sanctuary less than 50 kms away. Some months back a leopard entered a busy section of the city, injuring and killing one person.  Inspite of this, it was then sedated and safely repatriated to the forests.  Such refinement and respect for animal life is unheard of in the United States.  Yet Guwahati was also the infamous site for a viral video (the 2nd most viewed on Yotube for a week) documenting the shocking molestation of a young girl in a public bar in front of a number of onlookers. A friend of my mother’s, a newspaper editor who was passing by stopped his car to investigate, and eventually rescued her.  “Save me uncle,” screamed the girl, running towards him.

The city is a concrete mess wholly out of plumb.  Houses that are beautiful inside, have bare unpainted concrete on the outside that soon starts succumbing to the elements. There is no wall of a house that runs straight or lies unmolested--they have been added onto, subtracted from, without harmony with the previous design. The native Assamese aesthetic of design and proportion has been overrun. There is an innate beauty to a house in a roadside Assamese town: a small front yard: a 1 storey wood frame and thatch wall construction with a slanted corrugated roof, a wide, cool concrete veranda facing the street, a cowshed by the side, some hay, a little motorcycle a hundred feet away from the litchi trees. Aside from an occasional building, this is now almost all gone.

Wifi spots are mushrooming in Guwahati.  Sitting at my parent’s home, I start picking up multiple locations on my laptop.  One of them is named “waheguru”.  Fingers crossed, I venture “sat sri akal” as the password.  No such luck.

Dripping rain in Assam is mesmerizing, and seemingly from an endless reservoir.  The rain bounces off leaves and walls and cornices, sounding like a mild drumroll all around. The humidity and the warmth provide an enormous driving force for organic growth, and surfaces precipitate to a blackish green slickness made of moss and algae.  Little puddles of water agglomerate on the streets.  Pedestrians navigate around them and each other on tippy toes, their raised umbrellas making love to one another like entwined serpents as they cross.  An empty cigarette packet that would otherwise have hidden amidst the dry grass now glistens and opens up to the foreground beneath the rain. Inside the house, the bedsheets have a damp feel, and there is steaming cup after steaming cup of tea to while away the morning reading newspapers that don't crackle anymore when they are opened.  Inspite of the randomness of this shamble of a city, there is a deep poetry to Guwahati that the rain and the surrounding hills bring about.

We are back in Kolkata, headed to the blouse maker’s establishment with a motor mouth of a cab driver.  He gives us a running commentary on the city, and speaks with instant authority. Educated, and as a professor, he would have made a successful fund raiser. He even recommends a blouse maker from CE market.  Our destination is on Chakraberia Lane, but he takes us to Chakraberia Road.  When I point out the discrepancy, he shrugs it off with “unish bish”, i.e. “19/20”: a small difference, something with an error bar well within the general scope of things.  Fear not, he says—I know this place like the palm of my hand.  When we are lost and find ourselves situated by a rectangular pond perimetered by four roads, he decides to call the blouse maker. 
“I am by the side of the pond.”
”Excellent—keep going, take the second right and we are located right there”. 
With this brief exchange our cabbie meaningfully drives off.  I feel like I am missing something about the mathematics of the situation.  We get lost again.

Jayesh the designer sits at his desk like a maverick mathematics professor at “Miss Chief”, his small fashion establishment tucked into a quiet upper middle class neighborhood in Poddopukur.  Children have interrupted a street soccer game near the entrance to let us through.  A large man with an unruly shock of hair, Jayesh’s desk is piled with textiles and design notes, and M has come here to get a few blouses tailored.  He shows us some examples and I am impressed at the both the designs and the technology.  He sits there like a sculptor with a 90 cm length of cloth and cuts and slices at it, till the finished piece is a fine tension between elegant design and an intricate support system worthy of its own finite element analysis.  Some textiles are gauzy and the weave is weak—they need an underlying fabric support; some have backs that plunge precipitously and require intricate halters and strings. M has settled for a more conservative design.  While she is in the trial room, I chat with him.  He comes from a 4th generation Marwari family in Kolkata and is comfortable with both cultures.  He has his own workshop for cutting, stitching and finishing and has dedicated groups of people who specialize on different pieces.  Mostly focused on salwar kameez’es and blouses, he is planning to introduce a line of designer sarees.  He talks about the trend in Kolkata today to use traditional weaving and printing methods, but with new designs and colors that veer away from the traditional combinations like “beige and maroon”.

One morning we drive to IIT Kharagpur.  A journey that used to be almost exclusively made by train is now comfortably short due to a new 4 lane national highway.  The drive down is smooth except for the occasional unsettling experience of steering past vehicles that drive in the wrong direction along short stretches.   The cars on the roads today are modern, but most of the trucks are of 70s/80s vintage and woefully unsafe.  There are smart, multi-lane tollbooths and stuck behind a line of trucks at one of them we find a group of men with stout wooden sticks banging hard against the sides of the trucks, while at the same time engaging in amicable banter with the truck drivers, the banging seemingly just a physical response entirely disconnected from the conversation.  There appears no action sought on the part of the truck driver and as the  line inches through the toll booths, the truck driver eventually moves on.  Our driver explains the situation—some of the lanes are exclusively reserved for cars, but the truck drivers willfully ignore this as a matter of procedure.  There is a team of baton wielding employees who are supposed to rectify this situation and the banging constitutes their token response to their duties.
Nivedita Bridge on way to Kharagpur

The road to Kharagpur runs parallel to the train lines.  Halfway through, around Mecheda, the ground starts taking on the reddish hue characteristic to this area.  There is mile after mile of paddy fields, mostly worked on by women sitting or squatting in the standing water.  There is very little mechanization,  and I only saw one tractor. The rest were a mix between hand steered contraptions with on-board engines, and oxen driven ploughs for tilling the land.  Primitive thatch huts dot the land, and clusters of one and two storey simple brick houses form occasional idyllic villages with ponds ringed by palm trees.  Men stand lazily by the shades of scraggly trees herding goats, children walk by to and from school on sun scorched red earth lanes.  Twenty to thirty years ago, one would not have seen so many school children. 

I am back at IIT Kharagpur, my alma mater, after 24 years.  The feelings are that of a stranger after so many years.  While the place has dramatically changed, there remain obvious places of immense geographic familiarity—the dorms, the passageways in the main building, the amphitheater.  But I have a hard time connecting—too many years have passed by and the nostalgia is absent.  I meet some of my older professors that have remained, and some current professors who were my contemporaries as students.  I am received with great warmth.  In the afternoon, I sit in the lobby of the women’s dorm while M walks in to take a look.  It is just after 1 pm and the students walk out of the lobby after lunch headed back to class.  They  leave briskly and individually without interacting with one another.  A little later I see the same phenomenon in the men’s dorm where I used to live. They looked like salarymen going to work, shoulders heaving with responsibility, a lot on their minds.  This is an entirely different mindset from the mid eighties.

In the evening before returning we stop at a CafĂ© Coffee Day on campus.  The place is abuzz.  Students sit in groups or are out on a date sipping lattes.  The change in prosperity from our times is evident.  Chhedis, the rudimentary bench and shack student hangout from our times is now banished to outside the campus.  The students appear a lot more health conscious.  At dusk many of them jog around the campus.  In the eighties unless you were a bona-fide athlete, you never jogged.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Kolkata trip part I: Dubai, Kolkata saris, and the perfect blouse-maker

For two days I waited for the hummingbird in vain.  One rainy morning it hovered around my back deck, preening, pouting and daring me in mid-air.  I borrowed a telephoto from a friend and then lay in wait with my camera for two afternoons.  It stood me up, flickering by only on the eve of our trip to India in a farewell swoop—its speed, its upredictable trajectory, and the low light conditions preventing me from getting off a good shot. 

It was with this feeling of rejection that I reached JFK airport the next morning, only to await further rejection and find that Emirates had now cancelled M’s confirmed reservation: a slip of electronics somewhere in the labyrinthine depths of the web, her seat gone, with no recourse, no paper trail, and no apologies.  This too was sorted out eventually by a sympathetic Emirates employee, and after this bit of drama we were on the plane and outbound.

Dubai airport, where we changed planes for Kolkata is like a halfway house for India.  Large groups of migrant workers from the sub-continent throng the airport, headed back home with packages and brown boxes with laptops, young men in tight jeans, chunky sneakers, and bulging backpacks made with 21st century polymers that promise a lifetime of rugged adventure.  The man sitting next to me on the flight back to Kolkata is from Bahrampur (Berhampore), a small town in western Bengal.  He is rushing back to tend to an ailing father—the call had come in that morning. After graduating with a degree in telecommunications engineering he moved on to management studies, and from then on to banking, which is what he did in Dubai. 

This apathy towards engineering is a widespread trend.  Indians have historically loathed manual labor and there is little excitement for building things with one’s own hands. As an example, India is among the cheapest wireless and broadband providers in the world today (~$20 for 10 GB of data transfer using a 3G usb dongle); mobile telephony is omnipresent, yet, unlike other emerging Asian nations, India has no presence in the setting of technical standards in the wireless world.  The chipsets are Huawei, the marketing plans Indian. The bookshops and the business intellectual environment are filled with thoughts on management, on brand value, on deals, on things and stuff that can be done with the stroke of a keyboard—the country’s elite has taken to these like a fish to water.  But there is little enthusiasm for noodling around, innovating into and not around the skin of a technology.

Kolkata, for all the derision afforded it by my non-Bengali friends, is on a roll.  An entire industrial sector dedicated to the IT industry is coming up near the airport. It brings to life what a Bengali minister had once mentioned—you can fly into Kolkata, finish your meeting and be back at the airport in the time it would take to get halfway to your business destination in Bangalore from its airport.  The metro rail is being extended all the way to the airport.  Large flyover constructions are in progress along the Eastern Bypass, stifling traffic for now, but beneficial in the long run.  The traffic volume gets less unruly and further regularized every time I see it. 

We visit a new sari shop in Hindustan Park called Byloom (  It is on a residential street in a reconfigured residential house with old stone floors.  A stream of customers flow by and it is popular among high brow Bengali film actresses whose tastes are not to be confused with those of their Bollywood counterparts.  The owners get their designs executed by artisans from various parts of Bengal, adhering to traditional textile making methods.  I try to take a photograph and am sternly warned.  Perhaps I might consternate a private customer.  The saris are unique, elegant, often muted, and with appealing color sense. They are not the loud, often garish designer saris that are immensely popular in the rest of India.  The prices will cause you to raise both eyebrows multiple times. 

Buying the right sari, I learn, leads to now finding the right blouse maker, a task not to be trifled with.  I ask several of my old high school buddies to recommend a tailor that M could visit.  I receive some, but none that are unqualified.  My women friends of Kolkata, I learn, are in perpetual search for the perfect blouse maker, and there is a fluid pool of tailors who fall in and out of favor depending upon how much the wearer and the blouse have deviated in the interval between the initial specifications and the final product. The perfect blouse maker does not exist, just as the perfect energy conversion engine does not exist. 

I am told that Manohar and Jayasree near Triangular Park and New Market have excellent tailors, and am referred to friendly Shombhuda from Jayasree, but then reminded that they did mess up a few times.  I recall Rajesh Khanna leering over glasses balanced on the bridge of his nose in “Ladies Tailor”, and wondered about his sartorial skills in this Bollywood flick from the 70s.  Debasree’s in Hindustan Park is a bit “nose up in the air”, pricey, but good.  Shantibabu is an independent entrepreneur who will come to your house to do a fitting.  And there is Ladies Creation, on Wood Street.  The choices are many. I like the comforting names—Debasree, Jayasree, Shombhuda, Shantibabu—they permeate the ears with the roundedness of a warm bowl of water.  They suggest new possibilities: perhaps I might find a blouse tailor named Nachiketa, or in a store bearing that most Bengali of Bengali names—Kadombori, or what about Kanakalata—these are just the K’s and the options could be endless.  I learn more about saris and blouses than I had signed up for.  More on this later.

We take a week long break to spend time with my parents in Guwahati.  The road from the airport is long and straight, and the landscape almost rural on either side, though incongruously dotted with large billboards for all sorts of luxury goods. Then, after a few kilometers the road degenerates into the urban mess that is modern Guwahati.  With the Brahmaputra river on one side and hills on the other, a more dramatic setting could not exist for a city.   This beauty lies to waste today as the city looks inwards and relentlessly deconstructs from this ideal in aimless random geometries of concrete, construction and automobiles. 

My parents live on a property settled by the oldest of my uncles in the 1930s, who shared this land equitably with his five brothers. Only two people remain here from that generation—one brother’s wife now 96, and my father, 88.  Until a few years ago my father would walk up the stairs to her house—ramrod straight—every day after dinner and spend a quiet hour chatting and reading the newspaper.  Now, injuries and illness have left them frail, confined in movement, unable to see one another for the last two years.  I took my father by hand one morning and helped him climb the stairs.  Tears flowed down my aunt’s eyes as they both sat in her room in celebration of the days past; both near deaf and unable to communicate verbally.  He was 13 when she married into the household in 1938 at the age of 21 and she had played the role of his guardian in a large joint family household. She sat there, on her 75 year old bed that had witnessed her marriage and the death of her husband, her gaze steadfast upon her brother-in-law, dabbing at her tears, occasionally reaching out for and holding his hand.  They were the last two from their generation, the others long gone. What memories they must be sharing in this moment of silent companionship.