Saturday, June 8, 2013

Guwahati and Kolkata

Guwahati remains a man-child of a city, unsure of its direction.  There are flyovers and malls, the usual symbols of urban development; but there is also a gentle “Malgudi days” feel to the airport.  Roadside stalls sit on bamboo stilts by the airport road, and billboards advertising 3G wireless are installed in the middle of green cultivated fields.  I wake up in the morning at home with a rooster crowing, a hen running around in the backyard, and my laptop registering a number of wifi spots within a scanner’s throw. 

 One day I am given a little plastic bag with some mail and papers in it.  Someone wishes to find a long lost brother who had disappeared in the United States in 1980. Could I try to track him down?  The bag contained correspondence they had received from the brother, or letters that were addressed to him at his parent’s address. There was one, written in the conservative style of the times, to his father and his sister in 1968.  The well-preserved aerogramme showed the sender’s address: H. Roy, 1869 Monroe Street, Madison, Wisc 53711.  There was a more recent letter and booklet from Strathclyde University in Glasgow to his parents’ home, soliciting alumni donations.  The booklet’ creamy pages had campus photographs that painted a place for serious study and fun.  These letters, speaking of Monroe Street and Glasgow, appearing deliciously temperate on a hot and humid summer afternoon, seemed incongruous in this Guwahati house where the business of living goes about with the bright sounds of an Indian city and a road out of the house leads to a nearby busy flyover.  Hemendra K. Mitra Roy finished his bachelors in engineering from Bengal Engineering College in 1965, and went on for higher studies to Strathclyde and the University of Wisconsin at Madison. At some point in the 70s he moved to San Jose and started calling himself H. Mitra.  And then, in 1980, he ceased contact with his family abruptly and the trail ran cold.  His sister has been looking for him since, caring enough even after 32 years to carefully retain these mementos.

It starts raining the morning that I will leave.  The intense humidity, the heat, the forces of nature here are so distilled that everything is alive and green and wet and slimy.  Tree barks and walls are coated with algae: blackish, brackish, moist, slippery undulated films with varying textures from rough to rubbery to gel.  In this drizzling rain I speak with a neighbor, he standing across the low boundary wall of our backyard, protected from the rain by the leaves of a tambul tree; I sitting on the steps of a wet concrete porch glazed by the streaming water.  We speak across a small patch of greenery and wet earth,  with a bush bearing bright orange rongon (Ixora Cocchinea) flowers in the middle.

Guwahati University is a sprawling linear campus lining the road leading to the
airport.  Dignified single storey Assam style wood framed homes serve as faculty housing.  A rickety gate and dirt path leads to the front porch, where there may be a man sitting on a wicker chair.  The front of the porch will have a few flowering plants tended to by the lady of the house.  At the back there may be a few gamosas (towels) hanging.  It reminds of a gentler time from the past.  Department buildings  line both sides of the road. There is the general air of dignified dilapidation that buildings in hot tropical climates have.

Kolkata airport has a new, enormous domestic terminal.  With giant sheets of glass, glistening mosaic floors that scream for a statesman’s footsteps, and a curved metal framed front, it looks like the way emerging airports are supposed to look in Asia.  It makes Kolkata appear to be just one more modern Indian city.  An artistic rendering of Bengali letterwork on the ceiling attempts at a feeble differentiation, but the airport does not capture the soul of this city.  Some of the construction appears questionable: when the rains fell some of the glass panes shattered.  There are many baggage carousels to chose from and a number of doors through which one can exit the airport.  This poses a probabilistic problem for passenger pickup.  The size of the airport can be intimidating.  I am not the only befuddled guy standing there in this vast space. I see other passengers speaking in deferential whispers not quite sure of their bearings.  They see a door and wonder whether this will get them out, or lead them into another unmarked cavernous space.  A famous scientist once said that our knowledge represents but a grain of sand on a vast beach.  Satyen Bose might have compared our humble wisdom to the size of a passenger in Kolkata’s new domestic terminal.

In the one day that I have in Kolkata, I criss-cross the city in a hired car.  Traffic flows better compared to my last visit and rules are enforced rigorously. Traffic light mounted cameras detect those who jump lights and the violation notice is sent by mail. “Bujhlen, man’ey ektukhani Paan thekey chun ghoslei ticket pathiye debey”—they give you a ticket as soon as the lime slips off the betel leaf by a hair. 

India has evolved a new metropolitan species among its population, and the airport is their watering hole.  It is the sports coat and jeans clad Indian man.  Some of them have watches with enormous dials on their wrists.  If they are not bald, they mostly have jet-black hair, regardless of age. They can speak with eloquence and can be imperious and dismissive if the mores of their hierarchy require such behavior.  They have perfected both the art of the firm handshake and the distancing, limp variant that they grant to a solicitor while they pretend to look away.  They are well read. Many of them appear to look heavily pregnant.  When they alight from the aircraft they immediately hold their smart phones up, scroll for email, and then bark into it.  They are as if ina game of “Red Light Blue Light”, unleashing their mobiles and setting a world, frozen while they were airborne, into a flurry of sudden instant motion.  This species originated in the more commercially successful metros of India, but they are a common sight in Kolkata today.  Occasionally some of them may even wander as far East as Guwahati and I understand that Guwahati is building its first five star hotel to house them in their natural habitat.  It is expected to be a less of a struggle compared to protecting the rhinos.

In Ultadanga we drive by a new flyover where an entire section of the flyover has collapsed and is lying in the brook flowing underneath.  A 16 wheeler loaded with marble was on the flyover and the section collapsed under its weight.  A lot of finger pointing is currently at play.  One defensive argument has been that the trailer hit the railing by mistake, which it shouldn't have.  God forbid other cars that might touch the railings on other sections of the freeway.  The car drives down the Eastern Bypass, an artery encircling the eastern side of the city.  Memories fly by.  Twenty five years ago this road separated the margins of the city from the jackals that roamed the fields beyond.  It was lightly travelled and my friend would gun his Ambassador up to 80 kmph, top speed for the car.  Late at night you could be held up at gunpoint.  Police jeeps stamped with “Tiger Patrol” on the panels patrolled the road.  It was a romantic time, if you were downstream of the winds of age. Today the road is packed till late night and there are five star hotels built or being built beside it.  The romance of the Ambassador is long gone.  Descendants of the bandits have had to choose alternate careers.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Mumbai, an Indian dinner at Soma, the Alphonso, and the flight to Guwahati


After arriving in the US , it does not take too many trips to the court to realize that the quality of the average pickup game in basketball is orders of magnitude better than what it is in India (MIT beat the Indian national team in 1984 for instance). There is a related analogy with Indian food.  Much as one might extol the virtues of various Indian restaurants in Manhattan, it is hard to beat the quality of a decent Indian restaurant in any decent city in India.  You can walk into most and the food will be that good.

After a long flight on the first day of June, I find myself in Mumbai at a restaurant called Soma, in the Grand Hyatt Hotel near the domestic airport.  Unlike the US, there are good restaurants at the large hotels here, and locals will visit the hotel just to eat at the restaurant.  

Pomfret is what I am after tonight. This fish is widely available on India’s western coast and I ordered it grilled, with tandoori spices.  It does not much matter what spices one uses: as long as it is fresh, and it is grilled just right, there is little comparison to anything else.  The closest to the pomfret in the US is the pompano, caught off the Florida coast.  These fish share the same flattened disc-shaped body but the taste and texture are different.

What was originally intended to be a quick fish meal morphed into a princely dinner—a whole grilled pomfret, lamb chops with Indian spices, a couple of pints of Kingfisher beer, two kinds of kulfi, and the magnificent Alphonso mango.  Guilt and restraint in front of good food are but vagaries of our vanities and hubris, and I had none that evening after a 14 hour flight sitting in front of the toilets where an over eager little girl kept inspecting the toilets and asking her weary daddy for permission to flush one just for fun because someone earlier hadn’t.

If you are in Mumbai in May, it is a sin not to taste this king of mangoes.  Bombay (now Mumbai) may have been gifted to the English King Charles when he married Catherine of Braganza in 1662, but the real king of these parts in early summer is the Alphonso.  It is the time just before the monsoons when the moisture-laden wind from the seas meets the windward side of the Western Ghats and the rains come pouring down unto the city.  It has been years since I have tasted an Alphonso, and I understood instantly why our friend from Mumbai, who visited us in New York recently, was driven nearly to tears after tasting the Florida grown abomination that I had offered her in the name of a mango (a good American mango is as rare as a good Indian basketball player).

I asked for the mango to be presented sliced in truncated hemispheres with the skin on and served with a spoon to scoop out the flesh which comes out in neat rounded dollops while your palm cradles the bowl of mango skin.  You do the eating.  The mango does the rest.

I chat with my waiter.  Most of the employees in the hotel are young graduates of hotel management institutions that have sprouted to cater to the growing hospitality business.  My waiter, barely out of his teens, is from Goa.  While neither he nor his parents speak Portuguese, his grandparents knew the language well.  Even today, he tells me, there are parts of Goa where this language is spoken.

The Hyatt is a fine hotel except for a couple of stylistic anomalies.  Taking its cues from a rather bizarre Nordic-Euro hotel tradition that I will never understand, the conventional door between the room and the bathroom has been left to minimalistic interpretations.  I realize this may not be a major problem for a single occupant, yet it remains strangely bothersome to me. It is also becoming rather difficult, in a lot of sleek upscale hotels, to find the light switch and execute the simple matter of turning on the bedside lamp. 

I am woken up early in the morning with a cup of coffee delivered by room service.  The waiter who brings my coffee is from Assam.  Many of the workers in the hospitality industry in the major cities are from the North-east—they are like the East Europeans workers in London or Switzerland, and the migration is fed by the income gap opening up between the poorer North-east and the more prosperous parts of Western and Northern India.  I too come from the North-east and they look genuinely happy to hear that I am from Assam.  My morning visitor has been in Mumbai for a couple of years.  He manages to go back home a couple of times a year, but is intent on moving onwards and outwards to put wings on his career.

We all make our pilgrimages.  In the old days, the religious minded would make theirs to the holy cities of India.  Today, the emigrants make theirs, to visit old parents, old ties, old friends and their aging wives and grown up children, roads and buildings and houses that they left behind decades ago, and in them they see their own reflections in a time compressed sort of way, an instantaneous change that is upon you without the predictability of a smooth function. Some of us fly into Mumbai and are energetic enough to head straight to the domestic airport and take the first flight out East--the Jet flight at 2:35 am that heads to Guwahati via Kolkata.  I was tired and and opted instead for dinner at the Hyatt and a comfortable nap, after which an air-conditioned taxi (called a Cool Cab) took me to catch the 6:50 a.m. Jet Airways flight with the same itinerary.

Waiting at the boarding gate, there are people speaking all around me, but very few to one another within earshot, the conversations mostly aimed wirelessly across geographical lines.  Little do they know of the revolutionary changes in the chip within their late model phones that allows all of this information to be processed.  And with this spiraling web of text, data and speech available at an ever decreasing expenditure of energy, there must be some law based upon a humanistic coordinate that seeks the limits to this information's potency which we as a society can absorb when the energies to process them become infinitesimally small.

A party of friends--husbands, wives, and children--is travelling with the carefree demeanor of holidaymakers.  On the bus that takes us to the aircraft across the tarmac, they engage in light banter and the women exchange photographs on their smart phones.  They remind me of the large groups of relatives that would take a train across the country to attend a marriage.  There is a thrill on their faces, a sense of being part of a big river of occasion and gaiety that is hard to replicate in business travel. 

I speak to the young lady sitting next to me on the aircraft—she is a software engineer from Mumbai and one of the breed of new professionals who move around the world with their jobs, at ease in any place.  I mention the old corporate lifestyle of the India of the 70s and 80s that I knew, and she refers to that socialistic time with a sense of history much in the manner that we used to talk about Gandhi.  Duly apprised of my vintage, I arrive at Guwahati airport.