All entries for March 2007

March 29, 2007

No Full Stops in India

The Telegraph, 29.03.2007

Scene 1: “Where do you think you’re going?” questioned a moustached laathi-wielding guard outside one of Sir Edwin Lutyen’s architectural marvels — the viceregal palace in New Delhi, now the Rashtrapati Bhavan.

“I have an appointment with the President of India,” I replied, with a smirk on my face. I pretended to ignore the bemused look on the faces of the guards as my Ambassador taxi drove up the drive outside the gigantic concrete steps which one half-naked fakir had trod on 70-odd years ago.

A.P.J. Abdul Kalam is everything the media portrays him to be — he is intelligent, a man with a vision and a good grasp of developmental issues concerning India. I got a full dose of all his plans — providing urban amenities in rural areas, infrastructure development, use of information technology to alleviate poverty and so on. I was interviewing him as part of a research project for the University of Warwick. By the time I came out, my head was spinning with facts and figures.

Scene 2: Sitting in a small, and rather humble office, I discussed economic reforms and its effects on India with N. Narayana Murthy, till recently the chairman of Infosys. He was the only famous man in India who took the trouble of standing up and greeting me when I entered his office. There was the usual dose of praise for reforms and call for further liberalization. That India’s economic growth is based on borrowed ideas was readily accepted — something Indians get very defensive about.

Scene 3: “We will not get any jobs in the new factory. We are poor and illiterate and soon will be landless.” I heard this in the Jagatsinghpur district of Orissa, where the South Korean firm, Posco, is planning a £5 billion steel plant. Sitting in a mud hut in sickening heat, with crushing poverty around me, I listen to the villagers who have no say in India’s march towards breakneck industrialization. I had spent the previous month talking to bureaucrats in the Planning Commission, who spoke at length about how rural infrastructure is improving. The potholed roads in Orissa did their argument no favour.

Scene 4: “India is growing by 9 per cent a year and soon we will overtake China that is growing by 10 per cent a year”. I got bombarded by another round of facts and figures from well-meaning, English-speaking students at a renowned university in Calcutta. Earlier in the month, I had seen the crowd overflowing at the newly-opened KFC outlet at the City Centre Mall in Calcutta and the Subway and McDonald’s outlets in New Delhi — the fads of ‘new’ India.

Scene 5: The banks of the Sabarmati river have changed completely since 1982, when Richard Attenborough shot Gandhi. Amidst the concrete jungle, the Sabarmati Ashram is barely recognizable. I walked up to a guard and pointed out the irony of his carrying weapons in the world’s non-violent capital.

“What to do sahib? College students come here to ‘fool around’ behind the bushes, taking advantage of the peaceful surroundings,” he replied.

Watching The Last Days of the Raj on Channel 4, sitting in the heart of England, these images of today’s India flashed across my mind. India has definitely seen a lot of change, but what that change is leading the country to is something we haven’t explored fully. What I know for sure is that Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s India is no more. The country he fought to free has ceased to exist in the 60 years since 1947. Whether Bapu would have called this freedom, I don’t know. But I can guess.

March 20, 2007

Globalised Ramblings

India Nest, 17.03.07

When was the last time you ever looked at the sky and took a deep breath of fresh air, cleansing your mind of all thoughts? For starters, fresh air is non-existent in the concrete boulevards of modern cities. And what’s the big deal about that empty blue mass hanging over us anyway? What I realised the other day walking down Narborough Road in Leicester that I had not looked up at the sky for many months.

I remember 2001 in Kolkata. After every gruelling porikkha, we used to play 3 hours of cricket every day. No inhibitions, no worries, no restrictions- those were the days. Lying covered in mud in the playing field, looking up at the sky- hours used to fly by like this. When I went back home last year, the field had been replaced by a construction site. I suppose children could look up at the sky from the tiny windows of the multi-storeyed flats.

What’s the whole fixation with the sky all about?

In the higledy pigledy world of modern urban existance, there is no respite, no space and no freedom. Looking at the sky- at the millions of stars sprinkled around the moon at night- represents appreciating the finer things in life. It doesn’t have to be the sky. When was the last time you took a flower and smelled it? Or looked at a puppy playing with its mum and smiled?

Oh the interruptions! By the time I’ve typed about 4 lines, 3 calls have come from work. And I am at home on a Friday evening!

Now where was I?

Ah yes- Where’s the time? Mortgages have to be paid, cars have to be bought, utility bills are piling up, the taxman is knocking on the door- modern man has no time for nature. Whatever time he gets “off work” is spent in the small room brimming with others, surrounded by darkness and loud noise and his lungs being pummelled by the smoke in the air. In other words, down the pub “socialising”. How on earth can you socialise when you can’t even see or hear the person next to you? Perhaps it just means to talk about yourself, women, money and fancy consumer electronics items.

The globalised economy takes us far away from where we were born. Identity refuses to shift smoothly though. Sometimes I see Indians wearing metal locks and chains as ornaments (yes, that is fashion too, apparently), and trying to emulate 50 Cent or P Diddy (both African American rappers) in their speech. They prefer calling themselves Bob, when their birth certificates say Harjit. And then I see an old woman trying to get directions in fluent Punjabi from a bewildered policeman. When I tried to help, I discovered that she’d been living in Britain for 40 years. Going back home, I cannot find a waiter who will speak Bengali or Hindi in an upmarket Kolkata restaurant.

What’s the point of all this anyway? Not that it matters to anyone apart from people who are after the simple life. And no, I am not talking about a reality television show starring Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie.

March 2007

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