Cry My Beloved Country - Err No, Banish The Thought
The city is clean, with beautiful, gleaming buildings, and the biggest capital magnet in the region. The airport, a regional hub, is massive, they have the port with the largest container traffic in the world, and everything seems to be accomplished with a quiet precision, which even Los Angeles seems to struggle with at times. Sure it looks Disneyfied, micromanages its citizenry to the extreme, is a classic nanny state and operates as a de facto personal fiefdom of the Lee family. But let's leave the political discussion aside for a minute and focus on the economics of the matter.
Three British colonial cities - Bombay, Calcutta and Singapore. At some point in their history, all of them were more or less on equal economic footing. Well, only sort of. We can debate whether the combination of the Bengal famine and the Partition of India was a bigger challenge than the Japanese occupation and being at the centre of the Eastern conflicts of World War II. Perhaps Bombay and Calcutta did indeed suffer more during the Indian Partition. Besides neither city had the supreme geographical advantage of being situated at the tip of the Malay peninsula, in a water channel that sees some of the greatest movement of global container traffic. But Singapore didn't have access to the great Indian hinterland either.
Ok so not quite equal footing then, Singapore has the locational advantage, and suffered less going into its development path. But clearly, Singapore's headstart still inadequately explains the enormous wealth gap between the city-state and Bombay and Calcutta. Singapore is the 22nd richest nation in the world and Bombay and Calcutta, well, they don't exactly measure up.
And then it hits me. But first, I manage to get my porridge, with fish, and get a side of a salad that looks interesting and is being ordered by every other person in the line (this is all point and order business, I point at other people's food and ask for the same as the entire menu is in Chinese, which I can't read). Score! The porridge is first-rate, fresh fish, chives, shallots and fried peanuts. The salad is raw fish mixed with ginger, shallots and scallions. Very yummy.
So as I was saying, then it hit me. This deep depressing sense of disappointment. Of regret. Of rage and disgust. Of exasperation. Of I don't really know what. All I knew was that I was unhappy with India. Unhappy with its leaders in its formative years, who presented with a young nation, made it into a laboratory for socialist experiments. Nationalize this, regulate that. Unhappy with the generation of my parents', who turned their backs on the world outside, insecure, risk averse, with a deeply entrenched resistance to change. Unhappy with my generation, brought up to regard change with suspicion, perverted in our sense of innate superiority without basis, unwilling to learn from the successes of others.
When the economies of South-east Asia leapfrogged ahead in 1980s, when Korea was transforming itself into an Asian tiger, we convinced ourselves that this wasn't for us, that our development will be at our own pace, because it would involve sacrificing a nebulous entity known as "our way of doing things". When the monetary crisis hit South-east Asia, we erupted in collective schadenfreude, convinced that we had been vindicated in our approach.
Never mind that even after losing almost a third of its GDP, Indonesia still had a higher per capita income than we did. Yes, Indonesia, a country that scored below India on every single development indicator in the 1940s and had all of the same problems of a populous, multi-ethnic nation that India does. Let's not even mention Thailand and Malaysia here, because it gets embarassing. Even the Philippines, considered the biggest let-down of potential in South-east Asia has done better than India.
Somehow, we were convinced, and I guess many still are, that there was something worth fighting for in preserving "our way of life". Personally I used to think that our social fabric needed to be sheltered from the globalizing influences that economic reform would bring forth. In the foodcourt, I pondered over what this "way of life" truly amounted to. It definitely was a social safety net, an emotional support structure, ties that bind and anchor our lives. I love my own extended family, and cannot possibly imagine them not playing a major role in my existence.
But then, this was also a society of deeply entrenched traditional divisions of religion and caste. A society which is yet to internalize fundamental concepts of liberal democracy such as collective consensus, personal choice, checks and balances on use of power/authority and tolerance of dissenting views. A society where being born female still imposes significant constraints on movement and choice. We rejected rapid economic development so all this and more could be preserved. Not a cause worth fighting for. If democratic ideals are indeed what gives us a moral edge over a nation like Singapore, then where is the commitment to those ideals within our social structure and interpersonal relationships, our economic arrangements and our politics? I felt so cheated right there.
I've never felt such ambivalence about my homeland before and it made me sad and depressed on my flight to Delhi, not the sort of emotions people generally feel on coming home after three years. Not much had changed at the airport. Same shabby Eastern Europe style building (actually Bucharest airport is slightly better), same chaos, in fact the traffic in the parking lot was even more chaotic than last time. But the immigration officer smiled and joked. They always do.
The neighbourhood that my parents stay in now has become dilapidated in only about two decades since its creation. Roads riddled with potholes, community parks fallen into disrepair, used for wedding parties where guest routinely trash the park (because of course, we never learnt to be responsible towards civic common resources). Piles of rubble from rapid construction were strewn everywhere. The drivers were as crazy as ever.
I complained to my father. He merely smiled. And pointed out the new things in the neighbourhood. A new hotel. Another posh hotel being planned. A new shopping mall. And then, we had to travel to the centre of the city for work. And had the convenience of taking Delhi's gleaming new metro all the way. Hmmm........not bad, not bad at all. Clean station. Passengers duly purchasing tickets and moving expertly through the station. No pandemonium as the gates opened. People actually waited for other passengers to disembark before boarding. Has the metro succeeded in making the citizens unlearn the civic disregard that they had grown up with?
We visited two banks. Were provided prompt service at both places. In the second bank, I was amazed by the multi-tasking abilities of our service representative, who processed about 6 customers at the same time, a feat that would be impossible in an American bank, where the employees are often overwhelmed in dealing with two people at a time. Many of the customers at the bank looked like first generation customers - many of them women - expertly negotiating different kinds of deposits, cheques and investments.
So there it was - one step backwards, but hopefully, one and a half steps forward. Between all the crumbling housing stock and infrastructure, civic disrepair, and gnarled traffic, enormous amounts of wealth are being generated. Perhaps some of it would eventually make its way back into civic improvements, and the success of the metro experiment would trickle down to every aspect of urban existence.
As for religion, tradition, and equality for women, that's a hard one to crack in the Indian context. That seems to part of the one step backwards move, given the number of astrology shows I see on practically every channel (especially the news channels, wtf??). Temples flourish in every neighbourhood as land-grab projects (temple attendants running side businesses on temple premises), the divorce stigma is still well and alive, and in cities like Bombay all sorts of religious and dietary discrimination by housing cooperatives is being used to push certain people out of the rental and property market (and this is backed by a Supreme Court ruling, wtf??). A long, long way to go.
On another note, here's why I'm so happy to be in Delhi right now:
1. Oh to be able to hear people speak in earthy, idiomatic Hindi around me, and not just two words of grammatically incorrect Hindi punctuating a grammatically incorrect sentence in English, which seems to be the norm for Indian students at my university.
2. Being able to see hot Indian men. If you were at my university you would be forgiven for thinking that they perhaps don't exist. And today, just in a half day trip to CP and back, I saw so many cute boys, including two who were model quality. One of those model quality boys actually sat across from me in the metro. I leched and embarassed the hell out of him.
3. The street food, oh the street food! Such amazing goodies everywhere, including chaat, fruit and vegetable salads, mix of savoury snacks (namkeen served with onions and chilies), fruit juices, sweet corn with tomato sauce, etc. I had a few mini-samosas being sold on the street, and even these random tiny samosas were more amazing and delicious than anything an Indian restaurant in LA could conjure up.