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Thursday, July 19, 2018

Ruby Tuesday

Yesterday Don’t Matter If It’s Gone

Forty-eight years ago, on April Fools Day, I was a stripling, just 11 years of age. That day was momentous; when it sank into me that I would have to leave my beloved Bombay, my precious Christ Church Lane in the city’s Byculla Bridge, Bombay 8 precinct. It was very important not to call it Byculla, which was Bombay 27. It was our awakening class consciousness; the postal codes told the story of middle versus working class neighborhoods.

On April 27 of 1960, as I stood on the train doorway waving goodbye, I envied all my friends, who were much closer to me than I ever imagined: looking back on those years, I believe they changed my worldview. They made me appreciate the vibrancy of diversity. On that day, however, I was not just tearful but envious. They got to stay behind in this wonderful slice of India while I was hustled on to a train to Ahmedabad and to a moffusil life of sarkari hierarchies and the search for more and more exclusivity.

Christ Church Lane was home to Bombay’s aspiring middle class: cosmopolitan, diverse and secure. As a boy growing up in Court Royal, a wonderful old apartment house with large airy flats and lots of balconies, the only disagreements I had with my friends were about Elvis versus Cliff versus Pat Boone. Yes, my family was the only vegetarian in the building and I, the only Hindu and Gujarati kid. My friends constantly urged me to eat meat but in the end, accepted my cultural difference.

This was significantly different than my later experiences, where I was often put down because of my inability to eat meat. In Christ Church Lane, there was such a cultural diversity that my food habits were accepted and I was included in the community of kids playing games and fooling around each evening until the street lights came on. My friend Ruby Rodrigues, now Patrick, told me the other day that we actually had lamplighters, which I found hard to believe.

We met Ruby on Tuesday, April Fools Day. The last time I had seen her was when we bade goodbye at the train station some 48 years ago. The story of how Ruby came to be at our house to dinner that night is about the currency of nostalgia in which modern technology enables us to span gaps of time and reach out to people we have known at different phases of our lives. Ruby is the older sister of my friend Peter with whom I hung around 365 days a years from age six to age eleven. It was a pre-adolescent bonding.

Ruby was this gorgeous girl from the Clare Road Convent with many good-looking friends. That apart, Christ Church Lane was widely regarded as happening place with beautiful girls. We called all of them Diana, after the Paul Anka song, which went: “I’m so young and you’re so old…” We were innocent of sex then, only puppy love and panted after every lovely girl that we saw in the lane. It was pure romance but at a distance; we eyed them and then fantasized, forget sex or holding hands or kissing but simply a smile or an acknowledgment that we were alive.

When Carole Fraser, a green-eyed, brown-haired goddess once said hello, our knees turned to jelly and the only way we could recover is by indulging in physical horseplay, where mostly Peter and Teddy and various others jumped on each other. Because I was the smallest, I usually bore the brunt of it with a stoic grin…it was for Carol, after all. All those years, we learned through the biblical and cowboy movies that he who is set upon ultimately wins the girl.

Ruby’s older brother Victor was everyone’s hero…he sang, danced and had an easy way with girls; plus he has a hairstyle like Elvis that was in vogue those days. He emailed me when he read an article I’d written about Christ Church Lane and set up this meeting with his sister Ruby. He called the night Ruby visited us…it was the first time we talked in 48 years. He said Teddy was in Bombay. Teddy and his brother Alan Oscar, who was my absolute icon, lived on the ground floor of Court Royal. They moved to Australia and next thing I knew the next day I was talking to Teddy at the Taj in Bombay.

Ever the skeptical writer, the been-there -done-that variety, I am floored by this currency of nostalgia. It turned out when Ruby visited that our old friends Ivan and Ingrid Arthur were there and they also knew Ruby and her family. Ivan was for many years a colleague on the executive committee of HTA (now JWT). How does all this happen? The standard response is that India has a small elite community in which everyone knows everyone by six degrees of separation.

That may be a Western view but this is something of a phenomenon. It’s not just this encounter but over the past few months as I have written about reunions and other nostalgic moments, I have had an outpouring of responses from people I knew from the various phases of my life. I feel fulfilled even though some of my best friends today are people I knew in in high school and university in India and the United States. But these are a new crop of old friends. It is a wonderful feeling to know that over the next few years I will strike up in my life, like John Lennon, renewed acquaintances “people and things that went before.”


Race, Sex, Age Issues in US Politics

Lessons from the US Primaries
When I was growing up in America as a college student in the 1970s, I was struck by the idealism that seemed to pervade public life. The Woodstock generation rejected the material vision that dominated America in the 1950s and 1960s. Young people challenged the culture of accumulation and the power politics of those years including the GE automated kitchen (advocated by their spokesman Ronald Reagan), the Vietnam War, racial discrimination and favored women's rights, abortion, gun control.

"Why would you challenge the American way of life that has done the greatest good for the greatest number and attracts so many people from so many other countries to make their way in this air-conditioned country," I asked Newsweek's David Swanson, who has been a very close friend for more than three decades since we attended graduate journalism school together. His cryptic answer was, "We can afford it."

Today's "Millennial Generation" has replaced the "Boomers," who came of age during the Kennedy era; it is in the forefront of a movement against divisive ideology, soulless suburbia and the long-held notion of "manifest destiny," a worldview that was missionary (think Peace Corps) and morphed into a cash-and-carry imperialism that is well-documented in the activities of various American firms in Iraq. Worse, Boomer politics polarized the country as never before. I have a friend, who is so distressed by the new imperialistic mindset that she scours the internet to make herself aware of which companies support the Republicans and refuses to do business with them.

Far more than Richard Nixon or Ronald Reagan, George W Bush symbolizes the ideological divide in America. Many of us in India admire Bush because he brought a dose of realism to Indo-US relations. Nevertheless, I was shocked in New York, Chicago and elsewhere at the visceral dislike he evokes. While he did put together an international "coalition of the willing" in pursuit of his Iraq policy, back at home he is reviled with such ferocity that it takes my breath away.

After eight years of Bush's aggressive neo-conservative agenda, it was clear that Hillary Clinton, the candidate favored by the Democratic Party as its presidential nominee, would waltz into the White House with her husband, former President Bill Clinton, in tow. A respected senator from New York, Clinton was considered a shoo-in…until Barack Obama came along.

The forthcoming election was set to be all about Bush and erasing his divisive legacy. That got sidetracked by the campaign battle between Obama and Clinton. I was struck during my recent sojourn in America at the ugliness of the contest. It is as if the Democrats are divided, with working class whites, Hispanics and older people supporting Clinton and affluent whites, Blacks and youth backing Obama. I heard many say that in this battle of primordial issues of race and gender, the presumptive Republican nominee, John McCain, would benefit.

However, once the Democrats have resolved the fight between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, the next major issue that will come up is about McCain's age; he is 71 years old and as such would be the oldest person to assume the office of US President. "We are going to address all our primordial issues of age, race and sex in this election," a lawyer friend told me.

The US media have already written off Hillary Clinton; indeed there is a growing debate about the possibilities of a Democratic ticket in November that has Obama as the presidential candidate and Clinton as his running mate (for vice president). Gnawing questions remains, which Hillary has posed by winning all the major states like California, New York, Texas, Pennsylvania and Ohio: can Obama win over the large numbers of urban working class and rural whites, who gave Clinton huge victories in these states? Or will they simply shift their support to John McCain?

These and other questions persist in keeping the Democratic primary race open. Clearly, Obama has won the popular vote and Clinton has no way of catching up. Even the so-called super delegates, senior leaders of the party, have lined up behind Obama, including Ted Kennedy and now Jimmy Carter. But Clinton has raised the issue of two crucial states, Florida and Michigan that were disqualified for holding their primary elections early in defiance of a party edict.

Clinton maintains that she would have handily won a majority in both states. This, she claims, would have given her a majority of the so-called pledged delegates that are divided proportionately among the candidates based on the popular vote. Combined with her sweeping victory in the large industrial states, her campaign managers assert, this would have pushed her ahead of Obama. Many people think Clinton is right and believe that Obama will lose to McCain in November. Nevertheless, Obama has evoked widespread enthusiasm across the country with his charisma and message of hope in a fragmented body politic.

On relations with India, it is clear that McCain would continue the favorable policies of Bush as would Clinton. Obama remains an unknown and he is seemingly unreachable because his campaign has been driven by popular small-time donations rather than fat-cat funding. I can only hope that South Block has found channels that lead to him through the IT community in Silicon Valley, which energized his campaign with technology.

Education: India’s Achilles Hee


Caught Between E

On a recent flight from Goa to Delhi, I was seated across the aisle from three loutish young men. Clearly newly rich, they bristled with flashy phones and watches. They did not turn off their cell phones even after the stewardess made an announcement; instead, they went right ahead playing with their toys. I asked them to switch the phones off. They stared at me insolently and went into a huddle from which emerged crude sounds that I finally understood to be mocking laughter.

This is the newly emergent middle class that an open India has thrown up: crass, belligerent and reckless. It is the polar opposite of the privileged classes that presided over closed India: snobbish, full of intrigue and cautious. There’s not much to choose between the two. The new one is vile; the other was servile. While I have been a champion of the newly emergent middle class, I guess my view was colored by my utter disdain for the privilegentsia of Fabian socialist India. The new middle class is just as hideous as the privilegentsia. I call them the Vulgarians.

The privilegentsia was bred on elitism: right connections, right schools, Oxford and Cambridge. The vulgarian instinct is to push and shove; and when push comes to shove, to buy their way out. On the other hand, while mouthing homilies about the rule of law, members of the privilegentsia held themselves above the law. They never waited their turn for anything and without the slightest bit of embarrassment bent rules, flouted regulations and scorned the law. The emergent class of vulgarians makes no such pretence: they seem to believe everything has a price: schools, colleges, hospitals, and more worryingly: bureaucrats, policemen and judges.

During the privilegentsia raj, India had to reckon with parasitic elites, who dominated state coffers, extorted usurious taxes and provided no public goods in return. Under their dispensation, ordinary citizens were cruelly ignored: no power, no water, no public transport, no roads, no airports, no telephones, no jobs, no primary education, no housing, no public health care and no sanitation.

The minuscule middle class was virtually targeted by privilegentsia policies and in many cases, driven into exile in the United States, Canada and Britain. Those who couldn’t emigrate saw conditions decline rapidly: famines, civil disturbances, war, scarcity, suspension of civil rights under the Emergency proclamation in 1975 and finally total bankruptcy, which the forced the government to fly out its gold reserves in secret and mortgage them to the Bank of England.

Forced to open up the shackled economy, the government scrapped industrial licensing and various other controls. In the process, it unleashed animal forces that transformed India. We went from being pitied as a “basket case” to being admired as an emerging world power with a dynamic economy. With GDP growth of nine percent and more for over the past five years, millions were lifted from poverty. From being an apostrophe in the demographic profile, the middle class burgeoned and became one of the world’s sought after market segments. Global business rushed in to cater to their needs and desires; local businesses shaped up to provide quality goods and responsive services.

Sadly, the flawed education system inhibited the transformation; it achieved less than what it should have. Under the privilegentsia raj, primary education was neglected and higher education became a screening process to weed out “people like them.” Thus, the ordained ones went on to Oxford and Cambridge to return to appointed positions in the privilegentsia. The others, who had no connections in the elite segment, either went abroad to seek their fortunes or stayed behind in an irrelevant higher education system to become rabble for political parties.

On the other hand, with the establishment of the IITs and IIMs, it produced engineers and managers whose skills were far too advanced to be accommodated in the makeshift “Ambassador Car” economy. As such these subsidized elite institutions became feeders to the global economy. All the Indian success stories in global business that are trumpeted in the pink papers are outcomes of the privilegentsia’s misbegotten priorities.

With the rise of the vulgarians, education has become a commodity; something you must have to get a job. All manner of dubious institutions have sprung up to cater to these needs. With the unprecedented growth of the economy, the need for talent has become so acute that just anyone with a degree or even a modicum of education can get a job. The three louts sitting across the aisle from on that flight from Goa to Delhi were clearly among those. They probably had some education and were snapped up by some company and enrolled in an internal training program. They were like trained circus performers.

We have three types of “education.” The first was the classic Oxbridge type where it didn’t matter because you came back to an appointed place in the elite establishment. The other was a technical sort of training where you had no place in India but found a perch in multinational corporations or universities or other institutes of higher learning in the West. Now you have the third variety: of trained personnel focused on specific cog-in-the-wheel jobs.

Whatever happened to liberal values and civil norms as crucial objectives of education? Their lack is India’s Achilles heel.

Copyright Rajiv Desai

My Kind of Town

Springtime in Chicago

It was unseasonably cold in Chicago for the middle of May. But then I remembered snow and an ice storm in this city of broad shoulders around this time of year in the late 1980s. One evening, I got off shivering from the El (short for Elevated), the train service that ferries people back and forth from Oak Park to downtown Chicago, just nine miles apart. My car, in the parking lot, was encrusted with sheets of ice. I used my key to crack the ice and opened my car to drive home. The temperature was below freezing but I held my curses, looking forward to the scotch I would pour myself when I got home in a few minutes. The prospect was heart warming, especially because I knew my friend and distant cousin Prakash would soon join me to share in the experience.

Prakash and I were neighbors and saw each other at all times of the week. We were never confined to the American ritual of meeting on weekends. Mostly we sat in my yard or his, savoring the spring weather, munching on deli sandwiches or enjoying an after dinner drink at 8 pm, while it was still light out. We did that in the winter too, sitting indoors, chuffing pizza or hamburgers, even devouring an occasional steak. And as days grew longer and warmer, mornings we packed our cucumber sandwiches and frozen gins, put on our whites and drove 30 minutes away to suburban Oak Brook (often called New Delhi West) to play cricket on the wonderful grounds of Hamburger University (the training school for McDonald’s, which is headquartered in the suburb).

This spring was nothing like that; just cold, though the skies were blue and the sun was shining high in the sky at six in the evening. As I drove to Prakash’s house, where I was staying as I always do since I left Chicago some 20 years ago, it struck me that I didn’t miss a beat steering through familiar terrain. It was as if I never left. Despite many changes, Harlem Avenue, the main drag, was the same. In the early days, when I returned to Chicago from Delhi, I had to remember to turn left from Harlem onto Augusta Street because to get to my house I had to turn right. After two decades, I have gotten used to it and so swaying to the music on my favorite radio station, I automatically turned right. Realizing my mistake, I turned around at the corner of Woodbine Avenue, where my house was.

Cold though it was, and colder, I might add, than in Delhi at the height of winter, I had the car window open to gaze upon street corners and home gardens that were ablaze with sweet-scented lilac and to savor the wondrous aroma of barbeques amid freshly-mowed lawns. After a Chicago winter, any temperature above freezing is considered warm. People were out jogging and pottering about their gardens. The song on the radio said it all, “Heaven, I’m in heaven…”

“Why did you ever leave this gorgeous place,” my sensible self wondered. As I steered the car toward Prakash’s magnificent home, I found no answer to the question. Granted, I have a wonderful life in Delhi that is often the envy of my friends in America, I live in a nice tree-lined neighborhood, where you hear birdsongs in the morning, not that different from Oak Park and the neighboring River Forest where Prakash lives. 

Trouble is when I drive out of my compound, I am faced with the chaos of urban India. When I pull out of Prakash’s driveway to go anywhere, I deal not only with organized traffic but courteous drivers and peace with flower-bedecked beauty thrown in for good measure.

In the early days, just after we relocated to Delhi, my trips to the Oak Park-River Forest area were always laden with nostalgia. I used to drive past our house, my wife’s Montessori school, our daughter’s school and various other significant landmarks with tears in my eyes, wondering if I had done the right thing. Like Odysseus, my visits to Chicago were struggles of “memory against forgetting."

Over the years, my trips have become less nostalgic and more fun. Breakfast with my friends Suresh and Pappi Hathiwala, beer with Divyesh and Darshana Mehta, lunch at my friend Arsen’s downtown establishment Sayat Nova with my old buddies like Larry Townsend, Mike McGuire and Dan Tucker from Chicago Tribune, the daily in which I wrote regular columns, coffee with Jim and Alma, dinner at buzzing restaurants with Prakash and Alice, my hosts and drinks with Sam and Anu Pitroda. Then there’s Angad Mehta; to spend an evening with him is to be the company of Chauncey Gardner, the protagonist of Jerzy Kosinski novel, “Being There.” Played by Peter Sellers in the movie of the same name, Chauncey’s character was built around the axiom that perception creates reality.

With the nostalgia out of my system, I’ve grown to love Chicago differently…as a place to relax, engage in debate and have epicurean fun. I still wonder what it would be like to move back and partake of civilized life with an edge of sophistication. In my mind, the jury is still out. I am less convinced today than I was ten years ago that moving back is a not a good idea. But then, as my daughters unfailingly remind me, I am weird that way: left the land of opportunity at the peak of my life and am now ruminating on the possibility of spending my later years there. But then, this is the age when your intellectual powers are their peak and America is more hospitable. India, meanwhile, has become bereft; forget intellectual pursuits, there’s no room even for intelligence.

On the other hand, India is like Circe, the nymph who kept Odysseus from returning to his beloved Ithaca of Greek mythology. It offers you pleasures of the senses that make you jettison your moral compass and corporeal senses. You live with dirt, filth, corruption and venality and forget about civilization and its comforts. The troglodyte writer, Nirad Chaudhuri, was insightful when he called India “The Continent of Circe.” And like Odysseus, I must live in this sinful Aeaea, where Circe lived, even though it is plastic and crass and spurn the pleasure of making America, the modern version of Ithaca, my home again.

copyright rajiv desai 2008


The Fall of India’s Berlin Wall

Comrades Sent Packing

"Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last."

Prakash Karat cuts a sorry figure today. His ideological posturing has cost the Left dearly. In 2004, his predecessor, Harkishan Singh Surjeet offered the UPA support and enabled the Congress-led coalition to form the government. In 2005, Karat replaced Surjeet and almost immediately the relationship between the Congress and the Left turned sour.

The dogmatic new general secretary unveiled a new era of hectoring the Congress and pushing an unreconstructed ideology that survives only in Jawaharlal Nehru University. Elsewhere in the world, the communists have been pushed to the fringes after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Between April 2005, when Karat replaced Surjeet, and Tuesday July 8, 2008, when he foolishly withdrew support to the UPA, the Indian Left enjoyed more influence over the Indian government than Israel has over various US governments. And they blew it.

Karat’s obduracy has painted the Left out of the reckoning. Beijing’s mandarins cannot be very pleased. This is abundantly clear from foreign secretary Menon’s statement that China will support the Indian application to the Nuclear Suppliers Group. His dour, immature brinkmanship cost the Left its invaluable influence over government policy. The current crisis is of Karat’s making; it has rocked the India story that the world believes is crucial both in geopolitics as well as in international economics.

What the commissars don’t understand is that the entire world in banking on India’s emergence from a regional to a global power. US President George W Bush was among the first to grasp the importance of the transformation. As Prime Minister Manmohan Singh says, the whole world is rooting for India to emerge from its poverty and its Third World victim mindset. Should India succeed, it will set an example for poor countries. It did that in the 1940s when the Indian National Congress won independence from Britain and presided over a relatively smooth transfer of power.

India’s economic transformation will send a more powerful signal to the world than China’s phenomenal growth. The only other large nation that succeeded in wiping out mass poverty is the United States more than two centuries ago. Sure, China has lifted more people out of poverty than India; at the same time, it has clamped down on political opposition. “An iron fist in a velvet glove,” a Chinese-American scholar once called it.

What China lacks is soft power. That’s what the Olympics exercise is all about. The fact is that without the fuzzier aspects of power, it will always be an outsider wanting in to the world milieu. On the other hand, between cricket, Bollywood, the increasingly competitive and aggressive business community and the English-speaking, highly accomplished emigrant community in the West, India has more global influence than China.

The charge that India’s communists are a Chinese fifth column is not lightly made. Many in the highest levels of government believe it to be true. Any rational explanation of Karat’s latest move must factor it in. If, we give Karat and his commissars the benefit of the doubt, the only conclusion left to draw is that they are irresponsible and dogmatic. Any which way, they do not deserve to have a veto on government policy. Either as Quislings or as juvenile ideologues, they should be banished to the fringes from whence they sprang.

So Karat has now wrought his masterpiece of absurd theatre. It reminds me of a scene from the acclaimed film, “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” With the forces of the law closing in on them, the duo found themselves at the edge of a cliff with a river flowing furiously below. They had no option but to jump. Sundance was hesitant because he couldn’t swim. Butch told him not to worry “because the fall will kill you anyway.”

That’s the fate of the Left today. They have pulled the plug and find they are the ones who will be flushed down the drain. The Congress is a mighty political player with over a century’s experience. It ran circles around the juvenile commissars and emerged triumphant.