Sunday, February 23, 2014

Trip to India Feb 2014

Sitting in the aircraft at JFK in New York, the tension monkey begins descending from your back. For me it builds over days prior to a trip to India—the packing and sorting, the turning off of the hot water line to the water heater before you leave kind of thing. I have taken similar trips to other countries often, but a trip to India always feels different. It is mental. It goes back thirty years to my first trip here. I arrived in Portland with my passport in a hidden pocket that my mother had sewn into my vest, and two suitcases secured firmly with rope because my mother mistrusted Indian suitcase lock technology. A few days later my elegant friend Ravi Vemuri, a fellow student arrived with nothing except three bespoke suits and two lungis. You start connecting the dots through these years of travelling to India. Gone, mostly, is the innocence of travelers exposed for the first time to western ways. Today, the passengers are more urbane and worldly wise. I recall the ghosts of fellow travellers from trips past. The Indian man, deported by return post from New York, looking lost in Schiphol, with no ability to speak English and a look of terror on his face. His voice cracked and eyes watered in gratitude when I helped him make a phone call. Or the unruly gang of “carriers” on the Singapore-Calcutta route plying video-recorders that they would sell in Calcutta at a profit.

There is something good to be said about Air India. The seats in economy seem roomier. The food is good and the staff is polite. As long as plan A is working your travel will be enjoyable. Unfortunately, if things go wrong, they are not great with plan B. Flying Air India as often as I have, I have learned a few tricks. You may find that a bathroom in the rear displays an “out-of-order” sign. Go right in. This is the one the staff keeps for themselves.

I spend a brief night in Delhi in transit staying in Gurgaon and visit Sahara Mall. In the mid-2000s, Sahara Mall was a brand new chammak-challo mall all a-glitter. When I had visited a few times then, young couples, probably migrants from the rural areas here for jobs, would scour the mall and test out its escalators, and the women would extend tentative, painted toenail feet onto the moving step, one hand on their husband’s arms. The Haldiram confectionary on the ground floor buzzed with energy. Today the mall is past its peak. There is a thin coat of grime on surfaces and the cheap, synthetic interior construction materials and veneers have sagged. Stepping outside the mall we wait for our car. Enormous buildings rise out of the dusty Delhi scrubland, and there is construction rubble everywhere. It is a bit cold, but I am grateful to have escaped the frigid New York air.

Joe Biden called New York’s La Guardia airport a third world airport.  It must have been a manner of speech, or else he has not been observant of third world airports recently.  While New York takes away from its investment in civic facilities, the cities of India (and China) have been heading in the opposite direction, and it shows.  Delhi airport is a sleek reincarnation of its sloppy marble interior of the past with little of the randomness that is the stereotypical hallmark of Indian public facilities. You pay for this—three coffees and two bags of chips cost us about the equivalent of eight dollars. 

Here, when things don't work, I am always directed to people who are fountains of optimism.  This is not by chance, because it has happened every time.  When the SIM card doesn’t work, I am told that the server is down, not to worry, that at the most it will be back online within 2 hours.  When it still doesn’t work, I am told on the phone with 100% confidence that it was just a matter of popping out the SIM and reinserting it –so confident was the support “executive” on the line that, in fact, he saw no reason to hold while I tried this out. 

As we waited to be picked up at Delhi airport, a troika of late model luxury sedans swooped in, picked up a mixture of Indians and foreigners and then departed. The lead car, a Rolls Royce decked with ceremonial flowers, was followed by a Porsche Panamera and a big Jaguar.  Likely Pappu was wedding Mannu, and it would be, like many things here, an announcement of glitter and money.  The celebration of wealth and status here is robustly public—the airports have large hoardings publicizing the titles of the top officers of the nation who are exempt from security considerations or of paying toll.  Some people are often mysteriously ushered in while others wait patiently in line.  There is a placid acceptance of hierarchy among the public and an overbearing assumption of it on the part of the entitled. It is easy to understand the rising support for Kejriwal after a few days here.

The road into Guwahati from Borjhar airport cuts through the University of Guwahati.  Buildings and departments lie set back from the road.  We pass the Departments of Chemistry, of Statistics and of Biotechnology. The Centre for Eastern Studies is a sturdy building of unpainted concrete and nondescript glass and steel windows, set on a patch of land with an untended driveway leading through it.  A solitary small car is parked in front and a few scattered students walk by. A three wheeler carts a mound of hay ahead of us on the road.  Set in a background of green fields, It is an idyllic setting for leisurely academia. Perhaps the professor just returned from his afternoon lunch and is slowly sipping a cup of Assam tea. The wheels of learning crank slowly but surely, like molasses through this lazy Assam afternoon.  By all realistic measures, the Indian education system has been a success.  Here in Guwahati, in one of the remote parts of the country, all the facilities are available, at least at the undergraduate level, that this will never be a rate limiting step for someone with talent and motivation.

Arriving home, I head straight to my 90-year-old father who was sleeping.  When he awakens, he cannot recognize me. This is the first time this has happened.  I gently nudge his memory and mention my name.  It takes a few seconds for his face to turn into a broad smile, and then into an expression of extreme happiness.  He then starts speaking. He enquires about the New York winter and proceeds to tell me did I know that New York City had had its coldest temperatures in 118 years?  His memories come flooding back, precise in their content, all this from a sleep awakened start where he could not recognize his own son.  It is fascinating how the mind works and what it is that old age does.  Is it a loss of memory, or is it simply a slowing of the memory retrieval process (latency), which I am inclined to believe was the case here.

Guwahati is a city inside which villages flow like tributaries.  Within the din of traffic noise and congestion, there are little patches where tambul (betel nut) and coconut trees grow and tradesmen clear land with primitive hand tools.  Big multinational showrooms and shops line the main thoroughfare, but next to it there may be an old Assam style one-storey house with plastered thatch roofs and a tin roof. 

I am here to visit family and visiting intermittently as I do, it feels at times like taking stock of the passage of life.  Six brothers, one of them my father, shared a plot of land here more than 65 years ago, and the six brothers came back at different points in life to build their houses on this land and live here.  Forty years back I would visit as a boy and these visits were a high point.  The brothers had either just retired or were in the prime of their lives.  The neighborhood was jubilant, the inhabitants were close to one another, and as is normal when extended families live in proximity, spiced with the occasional social drama.  Twenty years ago, when we started visiting regularly with our children, some of the brothers had sold their houses and left. But there were still many relatives left, there were other renters who were also part of the community, and the place overran with children.  Doors remained open in the evenings and people visited one another as if playing musical chairs between houses.  Then, over the past decade relatives aged, they couldn’t walk about, and the younger generation left for jobs outside of Assam.  Visits became like tuning in to a cricket broadcast intermittently to hear about the wickets that had been lost.  Old age, one aunt said, is not something she would wish on anybody.  Some of the houses were taken down and newer multistoried buildings arose, less dependent upon constant repairs. A charm had been lost of  an L shaped dirt road and a coterie of relatives around it.  Commercial offices moved into these buildings occupying floors.  A giant Kirloskar generator was placed out by the side of the road.  This is the price of time. 

One late morning I watch three tradesmen take down a large coconut tree.  One of them sat on a brick meticulously sharpening the teeth of a large two-man hand saw with a file.  The other positioned himself about two thirds of the way up the tree and hacked away at a 18 inch diameter trunk with a “Dao”(a large curved knife), chipping away the wood till the trunk had necked down to a diameter of about 6 inches. At that point a third colleague tugged at a rope that had been secured to the top third of the trunk, till it dropped to the ground.  The Dao-man held tight to the rest of the tree while the big section fell, and then I saw him expertly dismount: a dangerous task without safety precautions, carried out by a man well past fifty with minimal equipment.

Guwahati is old fashioned enough that the breed of the old timer, nocturnal “chichkey chor” or common thief still exists.  The marks of their opportunistic visits exist in our building. One night some years ago a thief tried to remove the bathroom window rods to get in—he was only partially successful.  A few months ago, another tried to climb the roof of the house late at night to get at some construction supplies that were stored there.  On the way down he broke a ledge, fell with a huge commotion and then leapt away to cries of chor chor.  The classic thief of the old days was a wiry and fast guy who would step into action after applying mustard oil all over his body.  This way he could slither out of any hold that a pursuer might attempt on him.  Legend is that, in a double whammy and in a nod to perhaps the ancient animal kingdom ritual of marking territory, the classic thief relieved himself at the scene of the crime before leaving the victim’s house.

Winter in Assam is a time for red kantha stitched (quilted) Lleps, cheap Chinese nylon mosquito nets and the winter sun to bask in.  At mid morning there is a hint of fog in the air and, sitting outside on the porch with a cup of tea and a book, shafts of the winter sunlight warms the skin like a shot of whiskey.  Single vendors come by hawking their wares with baskets on their shoulders, walking along the lane that ends at our gate.  At the end of the cul-de-sac they announce themselves, tilt their heads up to glance upwards at the balconies for potential customers, and then turn around to leave. A few crows and birds chirp nearby.  The neighborhood residents are busy: a lady hangs clothes to dry, a young man parks his motorcycle and heads into a building.  A father loudly teaches history to his young son and a maidservant washes dishes in another house. The day goes on this way, plied with cup after cup of Assam tea—a tea drinker here may consume over ten cups of tea a day, staying all the while constantly in defense against the swarms of mosquitoes breeding on open drains.   When evening comes, the lights go on in the multinational stores, on mannequins and posters of Indian models who are carefully chosen to look white, or “international” as the aphorism goes.  A few hundred yards away, in a little rustic tributary of the city, a muezzin’s prayer begins, a deep soulful voice over loudspeakers that harkens the evening and bids the day farewell.

A flyover elevates itself from the chaos around the no. 4 bridge area in the north of Calcutta, whisks the rider past shoulder level views of Victoria Memorial, the La Martiniere schools, the Belle View Nursing Home, and then descends from its regal perch releasing the rider into the area around Rabindra Sadan and the race track. Where does one find romance in a city? Is it in perfect landscapes, or is it in the repeated inconsistencies of a place, its hubris and false pretensions, its worship of past glories, its scientists, artists, playwrights, its filth, its humanity and sense of humor, a city whose irregularities collectively present themselves like some delightful fuzzball of disorderliness? So when you come back to see new flyovers, metros, and Armageddon like visions of giant half built constructions looming in a translucent landscape of smoke and dust along the Eastern Bypass in a metropolis that has repeatedly (since the mid 1700s) been reviled as a city in shambles and near death, you say that this, is romance. A romance made easier, because you will be here for just a week. There are many little things that I have forgotten about Calcutta. Like going for an early dinner at 6 pm to 6 Ballygunge Place and learning that nobody dines that early here. But it is still the place where I feel most comfortable, where I feel that were things to go wrong, I would know what to do.

I was driving with a European colleague, through North Calcutta and headed to Rajabazaar, also in the North, to the Calcutta University Institute of Radio Physics where we were to give lectures. We were in a traditionally muslim area and without knowing this my colleague likened the place to his experiences in Cairo, except, as he said, he saw signs of new life and growth here, younger people, “more hope” as he specifically put it. The Institute of Radio Physics is a little known gem of a place. Before the 1990s the Institute had possibly the best undergraduate physics or engineering physics program in the country. It admitted only about 20 students each year. Almost all of those entering would have turned down other prestigious engineering college admissions. A handful of those twenty would have been schoolboy legends able to walk into any department at any IIT. Today this program, while still good, does not attract similar talent, and of those graduating over 80% join the IT sector. A small collection of buildings in this area, all part of Calcutta University probably constitutes the most fertile piece of real estate for Indian physics and chemistry—J.C. Bose, Satyen Bose, Raman, S. Chandrashekhar, P.C. Ray, M.N. Saha, all spent time in the laboratories here at some point in their careers. They were a varied cast of characters: Bose’s major contribution came from his fearlessly intuitive leap in the dark, Chandrashekar was elegant, meticulous and precise (he spent time in Raman’s lab in 1928), Raman’s arrogance made him insufferable, and the polymath M.N. Saha rose from a poor shopkeeper family where some of his siblings did not matriculate high school.

“I have not received my copy of the State Bank of India calendar in the post, and would like to go home today with a copy please”. It was a simple but firm request made by my 86 year old father-in-law to the State Bank official at the Salt Lake branch in Calcutta and the stymied official did not know what to do with this anachronistic request. My father-in-law had been receiving the calendar by regular post for decades and this was one of the privileges of the bank account holder, or so it felt to him. Cashing money from an account or depositing a check was always made in person at the local branch office. It was a ritual, part business and part habit, where you met the branch manager, exchanged pleasantries, filled out forms in long hand, updated your passbook and took care of your money. But these were no longer your father’s State Bank officials, they were people who zipped into work, did their work on desktops and laptops, and maintained their calendars on smart phones. Banking has changed for good, but it has disrupted the serene life of the older gentleman, for whom a trip to the bank one late morning is part of the prism through which his life refracts, and following which he might return home detouring through Sen-Mahasay for a box of palm jaggery sandesh, or via the local pharmacy which was always a fun place for a medicine aficionado like him. One by one, he posed his question to 3 different officials at the bank. They had little inkling of the role that the State Bank may have had in measuring the arrow of time in so many middle class households over decades. In this busy word of constant communication they were sympathetic, a trifle indulgent, but they had no time. It took one more visit a day later, and a meeting with the branch manager to get a spare copy that was fortunately lying around. There is no place for an old log in a fast, flowing river.

No comments:

Post a Comment