Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Cry My Beloved Country - Err No, Banish The Thought

About two days ago, a combination of circumstances gave me a morning and afternoon to spend in Singapore, most of which I spent chasing famous Singapore grub and avoiding its celebrated malls. At one of the food shrines (hawker food court) I visited, I glanced around and found that while the Hainanese chicken rice stall much recommended by the food website had no customers, a rice porridge stall in the next hall had a line snaking across the dining space. I'm not the biggest fan of rice porridge (congee in Chinese, bubur in Malay), but if there are folks willing to wait an hour for this stuff, damn I want some. So it was while I waited in this line that I had my epiphany about Singapore.

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.

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Blogger Bombay Addict said...

Super post. Loved reading it.

11:29 PM  
Blogger Bishu said...

I'm not too sure of the autheticity of this story, but it goes something like this when Lee Kuan Yew tried to give some word of advice to our Indira Gandhi she retorted back saying "I'm running a big country and not any fancy shopping mall".

What I like the most about Singapore is the vision of their leaders. How quickly they visualize the next big thing in future and plan accordingly. It happened with semi-conductor based industry, then with service based industry,and now they are focussing on bio-tech and education hub. And add to it, the excellent infrastructure they provide that's even unthinkable in most developed western nations. Reading your post made me feel the same as you - sorry for India.

12:22 AM  
Blogger Bonatellis06 said...

Why just Singapore? I was in Bangkok last week - more than 20 yrs after I went there first - and the transformation will make you cry ... it doesn't feel an Asian city, particularly one that was economically more backward than any major Indian city 2 decades back.
It's altogether a different issue that the backbone of the economy is prostitution !!!

Singapore is what it is today because it had a dictator like LKY. India still hasn't been able to do what he thought of doing 35 yrs back!!! Like ban labour strikes, for eg.
He had the foresight ... we don't even have the hindsight !! So why complain???

12:37 AM  
Blogger kuffir said...

'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?'

this is refreshing - most indians tend to skirt these issues and focus on how globalisation etc., is bad/good for india. most of india's problems have their roots in india.

12:46 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

(Bonatellis)"It doesn't feel an Asian city"

Ah, yes. We all want to be the west.

And Thalassa, can you separate the political from the economics even for a moment?

4:08 AM  
Blogger Tabula Rasa said...

good, good. enjoy the stay and more happy epiphanies to you. how long you there?

9:30 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Written dil se and very valid points.

I was watching Namesake trailer the other day ... am quite senti about immigrants. These people come thousands of miles away from homes in search of a better quality of life and start from scratch or only a notch. Only because they do not have recourse to such an opportunity back home. It is so goddamn unfair, it hurts.

I wouldnt be so sceptical and blame past leaders or present politicians. I kind of look at the rules of the game and what they bring about. In that sense it is callous, that as another commenter put it, forget foresight the governance does not even learn from hindsight. I feel like telling, people are dying out there or will die, for God's sake , do something.

On the flip side, the lack of political/civic freedom in Singapore is also scary.

Enjoy your stay in Delhi and the samosas. I still think the Kolkata samosas (made by Biharis) beat the Delhi ones (made bu UPites)!

And about this "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??)" could you put in a link ... wud like to follow it further.

Naveen Mandava

10:03 AM  
Blogger Vijayeta said...

Delhi street food!! Most AWESOMEST, YUMMIEST thing ever! When I was in Delhi last month I ate as much street food as I could and then realised that Delhi street food is actually also far healthier than what we get in Bombay. I mean, i'm yet to see stuff like momos, corn and the yummy sweet-potato salad we get there in winters. Sadly, in Bombay its all about pav! And having random stuff like samosas and vadas stuffed in them and passing it off as a wholesome meal! :(
Oh, you'e right about the men too. Delhi definitely has cuter looking men ;)

12:16 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

After fifteen years of living in the States, I return to India each year terrified that it will disappoint in comparsion - that distance, time and a well traveled and academic perspective will have worked its influence, leaving me more objective, less implicated, more alienated. This has never happened. India never disappoints, at least not in sudden, new or unexpected ways, and never in ways that I cannot understand or engage with in some measure.

Cultural comparisons are tricky. Economic models of development are so differentiated in a socio / political / historical sense - choosing the elements of analysis is always a partial exercise.

I suppose I am being reductive when I say - yes - I have admired the orchids and the sunflowers at the Singapore airport in a bleary eyed way after the usual twenty hour flight. And yes, children - without - a - future still crowd me when I exit the shabby airports in Delhi / Mumbai / Kolkatta. But India is so complex, so interesting, so layered, so challenging. And Singapore, excuse me, is so bourgeois and antiseptic, it bites.

Like your posts!

11:16 PM  
Blogger Szerelem said...

Hmm I know exactly where you're coming from. The east asian economies are interesting, and India has I feel failed to learn from them. That said, Singapore has it's own share of problems. They don't jump out at the visitor, but theyre there.

And Delhi food. Dang......now I am really homesick

8:45 AM  
Blogger thalassa_mikra said...

Bombay Addict, thank you so much.

Bishu, given what an arrogant prick Mrs. G was, I can well imagine her saying that.

And you're so right about the visionary approach of Singapore's leaders. In my field, port development and logistics, American officials and experts are always looking up to Singapore for best practices advice.

Bontellis, I recently read about an ad agency that shoots many Indian ads in Bangkok because it gave a first world feel without the large budget required to shoot in Europe or US.

Hindsight we don't have. Otherwise, Indians would have been scrambling over each other to learn how Korea and Malaysia made it.

Kuffir, we are hypersensitive about how we are impacted by the world outside, while we do precious little to fix the institutions inside.

Anonymous, I don't think Bontellis was necessarily indicating that we wanted to be the West. He was referring to the absence of a certain sort of chaos and disrepair that had been the hallmark of Asian cities in the past.

As for politics and economics, I do believe that it is possible to learn from the economics of countries like China and Malaysia while rejecting their politics. There are certain things they did right, like their economic institutions and fundamentals, but their political institutions are backward compared to ours.

7:19 PM  
Blogger thalassa_mikra said...

Tabula Rasa, thanks. Till the middle of April. Will you be coming by this way perhaps?

Naveen, the lack of opportunities is unfair, and there are many who would have stayed put in India if the opportunities had been there. Not me though, I like being a global gypsy :).

The rules of the game are spot on. This is an institutional problem at multiple levels. In fields with no institutional history, like telecom for example, we have done very well.

Oh I think the Kolkata samosas are splendid, as well as the Bengali shingara with cauliflower and potatoes, but the Delhi samosa made by Old Delhi sweet shops are amazing. Do try Kaleva in Gole Market, run by an Old Delhi family with roots in Rajasthan.

Vij, shakarkandi chaat and amrak - we'd eat this nearly every day after school. And then there is moth ki chaat, another healthy treat. Yes there's a lot in Delhi street food that's surprisingly healthy.

Anonymous, are you sure nostalgia isn't contributing a big chunk of this :)?

I do agree with you that comparisons are tricky. But comparisons, howsoever crude, do force us to think outside the institutionalized ways in which we operate.

Many times we are so caught up in what we see around us that being presented with a different way of doing things jolts us out of this complacency.

Yes Singapore is antiseptic and bourgeois, I know I wouldn't want to live there.

Szerelem, that's exactly how I feel. We are so fixated on the West, that we have failed to see the growth of powerhouses in our own backyard. It is shocking how little of the rest of Asia we study in our schools and universities.

7:54 PM  
Blogger thalassa_mikra said...

Naveen, the discrimination by housing societies has been highlighted in a number of pieces. Outlook had an article on this a few months ago. Here's a piece in CNN -


I'm glad I live as far away from such morons as possible.

10:54 PM  
Blogger Szerelem said...

We are so fixated on the West, that we have failed to see the growth of powerhouses in our own backyard. It is shocking how little of the rest of Asia we study in our schools and universities.


3:31 AM  
Blogger Tabula Rasa said...

excellent. i'll be there april 4-10.

7:19 AM  
Blogger Naveen Mandava said...

Thanks for the link :-)

10:04 PM  
Blogger Abhik Majumdar said...

Hey, nice article, especially your descriptions of street food. About your socioeconomic analysis, um more on that later.

We're always game for a trip down to Haji Noora's. Send me an e-mail if you can; you'll find my address in my blogspot profile.

And oh yes, you could mention Haji Noora in the subject field, so's I know what it's about.

12:38 AM  
Blogger Swathi said...

well, after the first metro was laid about a century back (yes, in 1905) it is not surprise that we finally made it.
n what i realize whenever I travel is that it is the food here that I miss the most.

11:33 PM  
Blogger Tabula Rasa said...

you've got mail.

11:54 PM  
Blogger Sudipta said...

Hey Swati! Great to hear about your India trip :) I moved to the bay area in Feb since, I started a full-time job here (yeah, I hate telling you this in a blog comment) but, we need to catch up! Will give you a call this weekend. Btw, heres something interesting I found today:
I miss LA :((

5:10 PM  
Blogger the wannabe indian punkster said...

I sometimes think that our policy makers and the general populace(in most instances) have fallen into a terrific morass of ignorance, denial and hypocrisy. And when a certain line of hypocrisy and resolute denial has been crossed, I cant help but think that it slides into a form of latent irrationality.

I may be horribly jaded, but I cant help but feel this way.

3:06 PM  
Blogger Gypsynan said...

as usual spot on! you write what i feel but so much better - its not just the fact that we started late that bothers me, its also the fact, that we have gotten smug so quickly. For Indian professionals like me, who work internationally, its very common to hear stuff like"Americans are stupid" or " why do newspapers write negative stories", ir even that "dictatorship is what we need". As if our bureacrats and political establishment (which comprises of fascists anyways, whether in WB or UP) will suddenly develop the imagination, the energy and simple aesthetic sense that leads to the development of well designed urban spaces (among other things).

Last year I stayed with a friend at a very posh Bangalore condo complex, landscaped, jogging tracks, 9 feet tall boundary wall. However, you could not open the windows on their 9th floor apt, due to the stink from a open sewage canal immediately adjacent to the said boundary wall. Now these are rich people, could nt they get together and spend some money to buy concrete slabs to cover the stinking drain, around the building? No govt involvement required. I know of no other culture where this would happen in an upper class locality and I have travelled around the world.
Lets face it , dirt is in our culture. And social, personal responsibility is not.

12:19 AM  
Blogger Szerelem said...

One: Update wanted muchly!

Two: I'll be visiting Thessaloniki in June and I was wondering if you've been there? Is there a mail id I can reach you at?

9:31 PM  
Blogger Rahul said...

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..........So, so true and eaxctly what comes to my mind when people talk about americans being lazy or stupid and Indians being the best in the world...we may have many good qualities but ethics, integrity, the concept of individual freedom of choice...all this seems to elude us and the cockroach mentality is also ever present unlike in the west where merit is recognized and promoted...

so much we could learn and so much we could have been....

2:00 AM  
Anonymous mainlymilitary said...

Quite effective info, thanks so much for the post.

6:25 PM  

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