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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Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Passing Through - Italy -1

Train trips in India have always been rather uneventful for me. Not boring, there's plenty to amuse yourself with, not the least being the yummy food that's on offer at the platforms the train passes through. But there's hardly anything exciting going on, and quite frankly my family would usually wish there wouldn't be too much excitement and the journey would be mostly uneventful and hassle-free. A cousin of mine almost went out with a guy she met on a train. That didn't work out so well, but that's pretty much the closest any kin of mine has come to finding adventure and romance on a train.

The point is, I'm primed for a certain kind of train journey. You buy a ticket, board the train, find your seat, settle down, check fellow passengers, get disappointed at the unclejis and auntyjis (make that meshos and mashimas for Bengal-bound trains) and their brats wolfing down gobhi parantha and luchi-alur dom, and just coast along till its time to disembark. End of story.

So it is with this scenario in mind that I said goodbye to my friend Giuseppe and boarded the train from the Napoli station to Rome, where I would be changing trains to travel to my ultimate destination - Nice, France. I expected to share seats with the Italian equivalent of unclejis and auntyjis, the portly signore and signora, pacifying their brats with hot arancine bought from some station cafe. I walk up to the ticket counter, and after much hand gesturing and two words of rudimentary Italian (which I have since forgotten), I managed to get a ticket for Rome.

Behind me was a very pretty Italian girl wearing the most colour-coordinated outfit I've ever seen anyone wearing. Pink top, pink pants, pink shoes, pink bag, pink nailpolish, pink lipstick, well.....umm.....you get the picture. After I got the ticket, I just stood near the counter for a minute, trying to figure out the direction I should be moving to find my train. Suddenly, I felt that someone was trying to talk to me. I looked up, and it was Ms. Pink speaking in rapid-fire Italian, completely oblivious to my incomprehension of her, as I stood transfixed, staring blankly at her face. Suddenly she stopped, realized that I hadn't understood a word, took my hand and started dragging me along with her.

Stunned by this sudden move, I complied and walked with her, with absolutely no idea where she was taking me. Finally, we approached a train compartment and she gestured towards the board affixed to it. Ahhhh.......Roma was one of the stops listed. So she was going to Rome as well! I guess she had heard me struggle at the counter, and decided to take charge of me. We went inside and found a coupe with two empty seats. The rest of the seats were occupied by a lady with two kids, an older lady, and a young man.

The train started almost immediately after. I was the obvious odd one out, I didn't look Italian, and didn't seem to understand the language either. The others were curious as to where I was from, and it turned out that the young man knew some English, so he took on the role of the interpreter. So I duly answered all questions - where was I from, what do I do, what am I doing in Italy. When Mario (the young man) found out that I was travelling alone, he said:

Mario: You don't have a boyfriend?

TM: Yes I do.

Mario: Where is he from?

TM: He's from Greece.

Mario: Oh, that's why. If he was Italian, he would never let you travel alone like this.

I laughed and assured Mario that I actually enjoyed travelling by myself sometimes. Besides, my boyfriend was working and had no vacations.

After the question-answer session, the others started chatting in Italian, with such bonhomie as if they had known each other for ages. The older signora started telling the others (as Mario briefly explained) about her trip to America to see her brother's family. They then talked about the new Italian films to be released this year, and lamented the decline of Italian films and the rise of vulgar comedies at the box-office (again explained by Mario).

At some point, someone produced a packet of tarallini, and passed them around, and I got several rounds of the yummy and totally addictive bread sticks. Then I asked Mario what his destination was, and he said he was going till the last stop of the train, which was Genoa. A few minutes later, I got up to use the bathroom. On the way, I saw a map of Italy affixed inside the compartment. And realized (to give you an idea of the scatterbrained way I travel) that Genoa was right next to Nice. So basically I could take the train all the way to Genoa and then be just an hour away from Nice. Sounds like a plan.

I went back and told Mario that since my final destination is Nice, I would like to extend my ticket to Genoa, but had no idea how to do it. At this point, to my utter bemusement, a crisis buzz started in the compartment. Mario became agitated, started explaining the situation to the others who all started talking very excitedly. Mario went out of the coupe, walked first from our compartment to the one behind and then the one in front, and then finally came back and explained -

Mario: You will have to wait for [Italian term for train superintendent which I've since forgotten] to come by. He'll issue you a new ticket.

TM: Ok, that's good.

Mario: Don't worry, everything will be fine.

TM: Thank you, but I'm not worried at all.

This was followed by Mario repeatedly reassuring me that everything would be fine, that I shouldn't worry, and my ticket would be extended, and everyone else in the compartment saying essentially the same thing in Italian.

Finally after half an hour, the superintendent appeared, and the look of relief on Mario's face was definitely greater than on mine. Everyone in the coupe had broad smiles on their faces at this crisis resolution, and I managed to extend my ticket to Genoa.

After a while, the train reached Rome, and everyone in the coupe left except me and Mario. I said goodbye to Ms. Pink, the elderly signora, the lady with the adorable kids and continued on to Genoa.

The train rushed on and Mario and I chatted about things. Can't remember, perhaps we spoke about my trip to Napoli, how I liked his city, which I assured him I absolutely loved. We then talked about our lives, me as a student in America, him as a programmer in Napoli. At some point, he mentioned his girlfriend, saying that he planned to marry her soon.

Anyone who's travelled by train from Rome to Genoa would know that almost half the journey is traversed underneath what seem like limitless tunnels. At times it seems as if most of the journey is carried out in pitch darkness brought on by the tunnels. So from time to time, our coupe was plunged in darkness. After the first two times this happened, every time the train went into a tunnel, Mario switched on his cellphone as a light source, emitting this strange faint blue light. Like this we went, yellowish-white light from outside, and then blue light barely enough to light our faces and fingers, and then the light outside. And every time he turned on the cellphone, Mario smiled a sheepish smile, embarassed at his meagre means to alleviate my discomfort.

Mario: It is nice I get to practice my English with you.

TM: Ha ha, I'm sorry, I wish I spoke Italian. Perhaps I'll learn if I stay more.

pause...........the train enters another tunnel, the cellphone lights up our faces, Mario smiled, I smiled back, reassuring him that I understood. That I was comfortable. And secure.

Then we passed what looked like Cinque Terre, five villages along Italy's northern coastline, a place of amazing beauty apparent even at night.

Mario: Que bella!

TM: You know, I'd love to go there some day, it's so beautiful.

pause...................

Mario: You know................

TM: What?

Mario: I've been with my girlfriend for six years....................

Mario: I don't know..................................

TM: What don't you know Mario?

Mario: It is not love, you know..................................it's.....it's.......(and he struggled to find a word, or perhaps say something else)

silence...................we both turned to admire Cinque Terre........

The train was approaching Genoa. Mario had to get off at the first station at Genoa, I was travelling till the main station. It was almost midnight. He looked worried.

Mario: Are you sure you're going to be ok by yourself at the station? It's so late at night.

TM: Yeah, trust me, I'll be fine.

Mario: Here, take my cellphone number, call me if you have a problem.

TM: Thanks. You know I will.

Mario: .............and, here, take my email, write to me, if you feel like it.

TM: You take care Mario.

Mario: You too. Ciao.

There it was, my last image of Mario, waving to me from the station, pointing to his cellphone, call me if you need help, ok? I spent the night at the Genoa station, travelling on to Nice the next morning. As for Napoli - Napoli knows that I'll return, it enchanted me enough to extract a promise to return, and perhaps I'd run into Mario at the seaside promenade there, munching tarallini, accompanied by his wife, formerly his girlfriend of six years.

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