Monday, January 5, 2015

India trip December 2014

 Part I: Outbound

Disembarking the aircraft and entering an Indian airport, there is a unique smell, one that mixes the heat, humidity, the counterbalance of airconditioning, and the whiff of disinfectants. Today I sensed this smell much earlier, walking through the passageway that led to the aircraft in Terminal 4 at JFK, New York. I thought it was the mind playing games, for the weather was wholly difference: we had driven in under an overcast sky and a temperature in the mid-thirties (F). But I asked my sons and they sensed this too.

About eighteen years ago we had travelled a similar route, that time my six month old son holding court sitting in a bassinet in the aircraft cabin, flashing smiles at passengers. My older son was then three and engrossed in his books. Today I am travelling with these two young men, heading out to join M who is already in Kolkata. One is eighteen, the other twenty-one, fast asleep either side of me, using my shoulders as a pillow. I had picked them up last night when they returned from college for their winter break. It is not often that the three of us travel together anymore.

Why does a trip to India feel so different and not as any other thirteen-hour flight to say, Sydney or Tokyo or Seoul? Those trips just feel like an extrapolation of a visit to California. India on the other hand, feels like a serious piece of travel. Twenty-five years ago this would have made sense since it gave you the feeling of crossing a certain border: Calcutta looked then like the photographs that you see of Rangoon today, and the old colonial-mofussil style bureaucracy met you right at the immigration when you stepped into the airport.

At luggage pickup at Kolkata airport is a large sign: “Welcome to the City of Joy”. Throughout Kolkata one sees references to this phrase, City of Joy, given originally by Dominique Lapierre, author of the 1985 book by the same name, and adopted enthusiastically by a Bengali audience at a time when India was starved of the world’s attention so that, when a city like Kolkata was the centerpiece of a major, though clich√© filled book that was then made into a Hollywood movie, a vestigial colonial mentality immediately picked up the phrase as a moniker for the city. Today the pendulum has swung the other way, the country gets a lot of attention and its proud elite appears overtly reactive, arrogant and even crass in establishing both their Indianness and cosmopolitanism.

A realization strikes me in Kolkata airport. A voice speaking Bengali in isolation sounds wonderful—there is nothing sweeter than a few strains of Bengali heard over a vast sea of people speaking in English in a foreign land: the words waft over as if on rose petals. However, the effect is quite the reverse when there are many such voices in the same crowd--yelling at their straying kids to stay close to the fold, imperious men nodding commands to their drivers, flirtatious bands of college going men and women--then these phrases abrade against the other and the romance is fully wrung out of the language. You have not really appreciated Bengali until you have heard that solo voice abroad in a place where you had least expected it.

Part 2: Server Down Achey

India is one of the cheapest places in the world for mobile voice and data and one of the offshoots of this largesse of instant communication is that a new sentence has graced the Bengali language:”server down achey”.

Over the past few years I have gotten myself a 3G dongle and a SIM card for my phone every time that I have visited India. Getting the authorization for these works in the end, but the path can be a complex series of actions. Forms are filled up, a passport photo submitted, and a young knowledgeable man at the mobile counter hands you the SIM card with the indication that your card is all but ready to go, that it is just a matter of minutes before you will be connected to the network. He is so assured, the affirmative nod of his head so definite, that were he a General sending you to war, you would have thundered into battle convinced that victory was your birthright. You go home and nothing works. You call a help line "executive", and they tell you “Server down achey. O hoye jaabey. Apni chinta korben na.” You hear this a few times, and then some knowledgeable chap somewhere finally fixes it so that it then works. I would just have hoped that Kolkata, the literary capital of India, would come up with a few more creative excuses. Such as, “Bit’er problem dada. Aajkey  to message gulo aschey thik'iy, kintu 1 aar 0 gulo bujhlen to, ekdom ulto-palta hoye jacchey”

I spend the afternoon on the sixth floor of a building in Ballygunge Circular Road looking down at an older building about fifty meters away, a government flat complex, rich with memories from three decades ago. We had gone for lunch to a cousin’s house, and she pointed out to me the corner flat in this older building where they had lived as children and where I would often visit as a teenager. A few days before I left the country thirty years ago I had taken my cousins out for dinner to Kwality’s at Ballygunge Phari and then at 10 pm walked down along Ballygunge Circular Road with them to this flat. It is here that my aunt, to whom I was very close, died. I spend some time looking at the flat quietly. It had’nt changed much. There was a small park just outside its windows and there were children who were playing in the park. The sounds--that of the crows and the traffic--were I thought more or less the same as from that period. Neither the occupants of that building, nor the people in the park would today remember the family that used to live there, or the artistically inclined gentle lady who passed away prematurely twenty four years ago. When a city sits on its haunches upon your shoulders with its memories, it can lengthen a few moments of an afternoon.

part III: Shantiniketan

Just outside of Kolkata there is a complex of sweeping overpasses that one traverses to get to National Highway 2, enroute to Shantiniketan.  We had started at 7 am and within the first half hour I learned that the driver of our rented car had grown up in the same street of Chetla where I had spent my teenaged years.  So while the car sped along and crossed Nivedita Bridge, weaving in and out between trucks, he filled me in on what had been going on in Chetla since.  First off he told me that Bhola Goonda, a notorious Chetla hoodlum from my childhood is now dead, sprayed with bullets by gunmen as he had breakfast at Sannyasin’s Mishti shop about a dozen years ago.  I had seen Bhola when he was a rising tough guy, a fearless bad apple, who would generally hang around the teashops in the area.  There was a time when he became a source of neighborhood rumors for spending time chatting with one of the young mothers of the locality: she would speak from behind the window of her apartment and with him standing outside the property and just beyond the porch.  These exchanges would take place openly in the afternoons for long periods of time when she was alone at home. I had thought nothing of them, until I overheard the hushed remarks in the conversation of grown-ups later.  We had read the poem, The Highwayman, by Alfred Noyes sometime around then in school, and its subject matter--the fugitive Highwayman who would arrive at his paramour’s house while she waited by the window--likely affected my perception of the swashbuckling Bhola from then on.  So that was how I remembered Bhola Goonda from then on: rising hoodlum of Chetla and conversational companion to housewives.

National Highway has a fast, well-built blacktop and very soon we were out of the metropolis and heading towards Bardhaman, passing dry farmland on either side with occasional small towns and factories making industrial parts.  At one point we passed the town of Singur, the would be location for the Tata Nano factory in West Bengal.  The cheapest car in the world would have been built there, but an elaborate standoff between politicians, farmers and Tata led to the plant’s abandonment and relocation. The tract of land that had been earmarked for construction abuts the highway and we pass half -built boundary walls and warehouses that, now abandoned, have already started succumbing to the elements.  A little beyond Bardhaman we exit the National Highway and take a smaller road that headed towards Gushkara.  This would eventually lead us to Shantiniketan. 

NASA has available on the public web, night-time high resolution satellite images of the earth for the past two decades.  Cities and townships show up as patches and clusters lit up by electrical lighting.  It is easy to see from these images that habitation in India is heavily clustered around the roadways and grows out from them.  Driving along these smaller roads, this fact becomes readily apparent.  Life springs from the roadside. Business is conducted along the shops that line it, and there is a continuous stream of local traffic--pedestrians, two-wheelers and goods laden carts--along the edges of the road, sharing it with the longer distance car and truck traffic. At times the narrow road passes through small villages.  Little seems to have changed and houses have walls built of mud with small, forlorn square windows inscribed within them, and with droopy thatch roofs like a ragamuffin’s head.  Ponds dot the landscape, usually with a cluster of houses encircling them.  Farmland lines the stretch of road between villages and there are little pump houses every few hundred meters in the fields for handling the irrigation.  Unlike many other jobs, farming seems to have a 50-50 distribution of men and women.

We drive into Shantiniketan, a place with red earth, on the day of the annual Poush Mela (fair) and into a major traffic jam that has clogged the entrance to the place.  It is one of the major annual events of the place.  Parking our car at the entrance to Shantiniketan and somewhere at the edges of the adjacent town of Bolpur, we wait at a busy intersection for our hosts to come get us.  As much as life has changed in the big cities, particularly for the richer sections of the population, little seems to have altered, to my eyes at least, in small town Bengal.  The hodge-podge of storefronts, the brightly colored synthetic fabrics, decaying, gravitas laden buildings from the 19th century--everything is diffuse, everything bleeds out a little bit, every object moves into its adjacent space. People hop across the narrow road blending in with cars; cars drift out to the walking areas by the road and nudge pedestrians, private space often overlaps with public space. This is not a place for someone who arrives from the land of straight lines.  To the untrained eye, a busy intersection in small town in India may seem to be at the precipice of a calamity to the visitor, but in real life, it is usually far from it.

We stand in front of a street side shack selling chickens and ducks, and, at the entrance to one of India’s most artistic and elegant universities, Viswabharati in Shantiniketan, founded by Tagore, one of our first experiences was to witness the execution of a duck by a butcher, deftly done in the classic style of severing the neck against a “bothi” or curved knife.

Enormous crowds throng at the Poush Mela, which is laid out in a large field with folk singers, tribal artisans selling their wares, foodstuff vendors, Ferris wheels, bookstores, and agricultural and jute products shops. The afternoon that we drop in, a pair of singers on the main stage improvises on current affairs. There is an entire of row of stalls where tribal artisans sell Dhokra jewelry, made using a traditional metalcasting process.  The jewelers cast the metal in their small workshops using alloys containing zinc or tin along with copper that enables them to melt the metals at low temperatures. We don't have much time and by late afternoon exit the Mela. 

We have come to visit M’s eldest aunt, a lady nearing ninety.  She has outlived her son and husband, who had been a professor of economics at Viswabharati. In this laid back residential neighborhood called Purba-Palli, Shantiniketan retains its sense of indescribable gentleness. Slightly run down single storey houses with deep red floors and wide verandahs are centered in properties with bouganvillea heavy gardens. Dogs and goats wander in and out of the properties. A little girl plays with a goat tied to a leash on a field.  A few men split bamboo stocks for constructional use. These are the traditional faculty housing, though some of them seem to have been demolished and built up into large vacation homes for the rich from the cities. Though they are more tasteful versions of the US McMansions, they appear incongruous in this egilitarian place. Confined to a wheelchair, the aunt lives alone, spending most of the day in the sunlight verandah that overlooks the front garden and a large field beyond.  She is tended to by a handful of women who all have lived there or nearabouts for years: one the child of a past maidservant who now has a post-graduate degree and is looking for a job and refuses to stay with her alcoholic father, one a superb cook who set down a meal of posto, alu bhaja, daal and chicken for us that will remind you of the sophistication of vegetarian Bengali dishes.  The women take good care of her and are fiercely protective—she is now almost childlike and requires constant help.  She in return, would not stay with anyone else but them. When the aunt passes away, the house and property will be sold back to the university. When this happens, the group of women who have spent decades caring for the old lady and have lived their lives here will be ejected from the property. It is clear that the aunt was hauntingly beautiful at one time. He hair is straight and thick even today, and in her younger days it ran down to her legs. When she smiles, you can see a hint of humor in her steely gray eyes, in a face otherwise slowed down by age.  Combing her hair for her, one of the ladies declared, “When she was young she was the prettiest one among all of her sisters.”

part IV: few quick observations

A day before we were to leave for Guwahati from Kolkata, around 80 adivasi (tribals) men, women and children were brutally massacred by a separatist group in Assam. This was picked up in the national news and there was indignation, but mostly in a matter-of-fact manner.  It would have been a different story if this had happened to 80 Indians in Bangalore, or 8 international tourists in Delhi. A day after the massacre, that included children being shot through their mouths, I saw a poignant photograph on the web of a group of Adivasi men standing and ready to protect themselves and their loved ones.  They were armed with bows and arrows for this is all that they had. 

I am fascinated by the endgame of getting a SIM card. In the final step to approval the internet, SMS and old fashioned clerical paperwork have to climax in unison.  The account is set on the internet, then a SMS message sent to the user with a call back number. A man is dispatched to the user’s house to verify the address. This is all very spy-like.  The wireless outlet store in the mall is manned by a phalanx of customer support staff.  Some of them are very, very good. Some are terrible.  All of them seem to work extremely hard.  The top 5% are as competent as anyone I have seen anywhere—they can connect more dots than what they are paid to. 

The behavior of a small percentage of the Western tourists can be embarrassing—exhibiting a rudeness that they would have dared not to in any developed nation and taking advantage of the courtesy of the Indian wait-staff or airline staff. It is not a level playing field for the staff who accept this treatment for fear of otherwise losing their jobs. Mark Twain had written about such behavior in his 19th century travelogue to India. Some traits remain. Perhaps the visitor feels crowded by the pressures of a high population density. Perhaps it is because very few of the staff in India like to respond with, “I don’t know” as an answer and make up on the spot whatever suits their mind, frustrating the visitor. Or perhaps the Indian attendants are just a bit too fawning. Whatever it is, it looks ugly on the part of the visitors.

Thirty five years ago it was believed that the Calcutta Metropolitan Development Authority, CMDA-according to my friend Shuvo--actually stood for “Kaatchi Maati Dekhbi Aay”, given the variety of ongoing roadwork projects in the city at any time.  Whether the CMDA still exists or not, I don’t know, but its successors have continued that tradition, and the entire city is dug up with the building of flyovers and new routes for the metro rail that links the city all the way to the airport. Disruptive in the short term, there is a method to this madness that can be best visualized by taking snapshot passages through the city as I have done, roughly @ about once a year. If vehicular traffic increases exponentially and the growth of roadways sub-exponentially, there is a Malthusian-like crisis to be had in the future; which is where the growth of the metro in Kolkata now seems such a clever idea.  And so this city of poets and dreamers today have (I feel) the most pragmatic plan for traffic management among the metros.

Driving to the airport, a little beyond Ultadanga and where a giant flyover headed towards the airport was being built, we saw an enormous construction pit ringed around which a large crowd had gathered.  There was a rickety emergency vehicle parked and a few policemen who appeared as bewildered as the crowd that they were supposed to control. It seems that a vehicle, or something, had fallen into that hole from one on the roads that passed by it. This was not the first time—our driver pointed out—a few weeks ago an entire bus had skidded off the road and fallen into that same pit, killing several people.  A couple of years ago part of a newly built flyover had collapsed under the weight of a truck and that vehicle too, had fallen a good vertical distance. 

Part V: Guwahati

The Muezzin’s call at 4:30 am over the loudspeakers splits the twilight chill of a Guwahati that is quiet after the night’s revelries welcoming in the new year. The sounds of early morning traffic have not yet begun, and the prayer comes across deep, pure, and soulful.  Guwahati is like a small town that has suddenly discovered it is a city.  Housing over a million people, it has no distributed sewage system for human waste and residents are instead forced to install septic systems in small properties with very little land. Today, the municipality has vehicles that will pump out your septic tanks.  But it can take several days to get an appointment. The traditional style of cleaning out septic tanks had been a manual one using labourers, called “sweepers”.  I saw an example of them in action.  First a big hole is dug on the property nearabouts the septic tank. After this the “sweepers” use their advance payment to go fortify themselves with alcohol. This is apparently traditional practice as well. They arrive at the job site drunk and carry out the dirty task of emptying the contents of the septic tank into the pit that they had dug using buckets and without any protective equipment, except that of alcohol that numbs their senses against the stench and the filth. 

“Hobo Diya” is a response that one hears often in Assam, in response to a request for a certain action to be undertaken. Its Bengali and Hindi equivalents are “hobey ekhon”, or “hoga shayad”, but the Assamese version takes the phrase to new heights and imparts a tone that is luminous with ambiguity. Its statement can have multiple objectives.  It can indicate the deferment, indefinitely, of the request for a decision; it can be a gentler metaphor for “no”, similar to the Japanese use of “very difficult”. Or it can simply mean that the responder intends to continue the mindless exercise that he is currently engaged in and does not wish to get into any complicated thinking at this point as to its merits or demerits. 

We return from Guwahati to Delhi via the 3 pm flight on Indigo Air. Richard Gere had taken this same flight a couple of weeks back and had kept the flight waiting since he had arrived late.  This time there is a large group of religious pilgrims from North India on the aircraft. They appear to be an extended family. The men are thick necked and beefy, and their sausage fingers adorned with chunky rings cradle iphones.  Most of them have fierce black mustaches, some have orange colored strings attached to their wrists and some have necklaces.  They speak to one another in a rough, grating dialect.  They have come here to Kamakhya, one of India’s major Hindu temples for a pilgrimage.  As the aircraft takes off, right at the moment of wheels-up, one of them shouts “Kamakhya Maiya Ki” and the others respond in resounding unison, “Jai”. Onwards to Delhi.

When the aircraft lands in Delhi I have a text message awaiting me.  It is the name and number of the driver of the car that we had rented. Thakur was waiting for us outside with my name on a placard. And when you are hitting the badlands of Delhi it is good idea to go with a man named Thakur.

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