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Monday, June 29, 2009

A Goan Retrospective

Pictures at an Exhibition

Watercolors


Sitting on Goa’s northern Morjim Beach one Monsoon morning, the solitary man on the horizon gazed dumbstruck at the turbulence of the waves, crashing ashore in 20-foot walls of water and giant sprays. He thought it was a spectacular Impressionist water color, with a streak of menace that would be difficult for even Claude Monet to capture on canvas.


Entranced, he gaped at the scene: steel grey skies pregnant with black water-laden clouds lit up by jags of lightning; thundering brown water bearing down on the beach with giant whitecaps and a compelling surround-sound roar of thunder and angry thumping water that eclipsed the soaring Ode to Joy in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Sometimes called “a memorable page in universal culture,” this masterful last movement celebrates the human spirit and exhorts man to higher achievement. But the Monsoon tableau on display that morning made any achievement of man look and feel shallow. It was an epiphany, a darshana, a terrifying revelation of divinity.


The drama that unfolded before his eyes would not let him be a mere spectator; he was commandeered as a participant. The pounding surf, the ominous thunder and the streaky lightning compelled him to acknowledge the sinister majesty of Nature; sinister because violence was its central core.


For a moment, he thought he’d go into the roiling water. Just then, the rain started pelting down and he stood petrified. The rain disrupted his trance, luckily as it turns out, for to have ventured into the ferocious sea could have been fatal.


Beating viciously on every surface in sight and beyond, the downpour blurred his vision. The incessant sound of the rain and the breakers mixed rhythm and melody like the jazz drummer Max Roach. As the rain came down, he looked around and debated running back to the shelter of his car, decided against it and simply sat there, transfixed.


The man could do no more than to surrender to the storm. Stretching his arms out, he turned his head skyward and let the rain beat down on his face and his body. He seemed to be shouting, not that there was anyone there to hear him. He was the only person on the beach; it was him and the Monsoon, an atavistic one-on-one encounter.


His clothes, his body, his very insides were drenched. But he was like a child, shouting to be heard over the storm. Still the rain kept pouring, and like Credence Clearwater Revival, he wondered if anyone could stop the rain, even God. He felt helpless and yet strangely, deliriously happy. This was sheer abandon: unprecedented, sensual, liberating, joyful, glorious and magnificent. To succumb to the majesty of Nature like he did that morning on Morjim Beach was to assert that the soul is immortal.


***

Portraits


But we have fast-forwarded the story by about 50 years. What was the man doing at Morjim Beach? What circumstances led up to that Monsoon morning in Goa? Why had he been coming to Goa for 27 years? What led him to buy a house there some 10 years ago? Answers to those questions paint a portrait of the life and times of the Goan diaspora in Bombay and elsewhere.


So let’s pause and go back to the 1950s. We are in Bombay, looking at a pre-teen boy standing of an evening in his living room verandah. Let’s call him Marco, as in Marco Polo because over the next 50 years the boy would travel far and wide, literally and metaphorically. For the moment, chin on the railing, Marco is looking through the window of a neighboring apartment. He sees a family at prayer. They were his friends from the neighborhood, kneeling with their parents at the evening rosary.


His friends were Goan Catholics. They could be found in the city’s cosmopolitan, culturally diverse neighborhoods. The middle classes tended to cluster in the western suburbs of Bandra and Santa Cruz and in city neighborhoods like Dhobi Talao and Byculla Bridge.


The verandah on which Marco stood was part of a large and airy apartment on the second floor of Court Royal, an apartment building in Christ Church Lane in the Byculla Bridge precinct of central Bombay. It was a middle class neighborhood of breath-taking cultural diversity including Catholics, Jews, Muslims and Hindus. A large number of its Catholic residents were Goan, including the family that Marco saw kneeling in prayer that evening. There were a number of Protestants as well, mostly Anglo Indian…and an occasional Hindu family


Named after the school it abutted, Christ Church Lane had the characteristics of cultural diversity balanced by traditional conservatism that Montstuart Elphinstone would have approved. A Scottish statesman, who was appointed governor of Bombay in 1819, Elphinstone was widely respected for his thrust on education. He established the Bombay Education Society that set up schools such as Christ Church.


(For the record, the Elphinstone Road station on the Western suburban line of Bombay’s commuter train service was named for his nephew, John, who was governor of the province in the 1850s.)


Living in Christ Church Lane through the 1950s, Marco came to believe that India was a culturally diverse, tolerant project, little knowing that outside Byculla Bridge, it was racked by caste, ethnic and religious conflict.


The neighborhood was home to Bombay’s aspiring middle class: cosmopolitan, diverse and secure. Growing up there, the only disagreements Marco had with his friends were about Elvis versus Cliff Richard, Ricky Nelson and Pat Boone. Yes, he was a fan of Hindi film music and his family was the only vegetarian in the building but the neighborhood was so culturally diverse that his food habits were accepted as part of the diversity. He was included in the community of kids playing games and fooling around each evening until the street lights came on.


At day’s end, his Goan Catholic friends would go home to be in time for the family prayer. Then they would sit at the dining table and have a convivial evening meal. Marco found it comforting that the family came together every evening to pray and to dine and to talk. Sundays, they dressed in their best and drove in the family car to church and returned to have lunch together.


In the summer vacation, they all set off in a ship from Bombay to spend two months at their home in Goa. On their return, they would regale their friends with tales of the sea journey and talk about singing and dancing on the boat with many others like them. They told stories of their sojourn in Goa: loafing on the beach, splashing in the waves and of guitar-strumming, singsong picnics.


A picture of this wondrous place that was at that time not part of India began to form in Marco’s mind. It got entangled with his impressions of England derived from the novels of Enid Blyton, Richmal Crompton (of “William” fame) and countless other schoolboy books: of country lanes, green pastures, bicycles and tea shops.


Christ Church Lane was widely known for its gorgeous girls. Marco and his friends called all of them Diana, after the Paul Anka song, “I’m so young and you’re so old…” They were innocent of sex then; they knew only puppy love and panted after every lovely girl who walked down the lane. It was romance at a distance; they eyed them and generally behaved in an idiotic manner. Forget sex or holding hands or kissing; all they craved for was a smile, an acknowledgment that could keep them going for days.


Embroiled in this vivacious diversity, Marco began to believe that all of India was the same. It was far from the truth. This became apparent in the early 1960s; he had to leave Christ Church Lane because his parents were transferred to the new state of Gujarat that was formed when the old Bombay state was bifurcated. Like a refugee, Marco was forcibly relocated to Ahmedabad, a moffusil town that was the designated capital.


And so it came about that on a warm April evening, Marco stood on a train doorway, teary-eyed and desperately unhappy, waving goodbye to his close friends, bound for an unknown future


Plucked from the crucible of cultural diversity, he struggled to grow up in a milieu of moffusil values and suffocating conformity. His teenage years were turbulent as the reality of the hinterland began to cow him down; the comfortable middle class milieu of Christ Church Lane seemed to recede. It seared his mind, the awakening that the drivers of life in India were prejudice, disruption and division.


***

Landscapes


Last year, I made my first trip to Goa in the Monsoon.


One morning, I took time off to cruise the northern beaches. Ominous dark clouds were gathering low in the sky. As I wandered up and down the coast, I finally settled on Morjim to watch the fury of the sea. Virtually hypnotized by the tableau, my mind floated back to the first time I came to Goa.


My wife and I, along with our infant daughter stayed with her family at their house in north Goa. They introduced me to the place that was just a notion in my head for all the years I had spent with my friends in Christ Church Lane. The experience plunged me headlong into the earthy robustness of Goan life, including food, mindset and scenery.


I still remember vividly my first visit. As we came out of the (still) chaotic Dabholim airport, Goa burst upon us with sweeping vistas of the Arabian Sea and the mighty Zuari River as the car wound its way up and down the hilly highway. Since then, I have probably traveled the road at least a hundred times but to this day, the beauty never fails to amaze me


What adds to the visual experience is the promise of time snatched from the world to luxuriate in the serene green of Goa: long drawn out days in which the major decisions you are called on to make include mostly sensual delights: whether to have prawns or fish for a meal; beer or some other aperitif, perhaps even a slug of Goa’s lethal cashew feni, which can stay in your system for days


Goans call the experience sussegad; a state of mind in which each morsel of fish and every sip of beer is an eternity. There is impermanence about sussegad; it is an altered state of consciousness in which time is stretched to make every nanosecond count.


Given my wife’s umbilical bond and my own fascination with the place, we got our own house in Goa. Then we began to see another dimension not always evident to casual visitors. Suddenly, Goa was more than palms and sand; now there were bazaars and repairmen; rambling drives through quaint villages and glimpses of impressive white churches that dot the landscape. The concept of sussegad also changed; from an eternity on shacks on the beach and frolic in the sea, it became an unhurried pace of life in which things must get done without demanding schedules and dictatorial appointment books.


Every now and then, when the day’s hurly burly’s done, we repair to a small cafĂ© on the backwaters of the Mandovi River. There, we sit and watch the sunset paint the water and the mangroves with the spiritual hues of color: magenta and crimson, purple and black. It feels almost like a high mass in an awe-inspiring cathedral. We sit quietly but the birds don’t seem to get the message: swallows, gulls and various other avian creatures zoom in and out of the mangroves with sharp cries and the sound of fluttering wings. Thus, we let Goa spread through us like a mood-elevating balm.


Sometimes we head off to Panjim, the capital, at the mouth of the expansive Mandovi River. Decked up in lights at night and by day resplendent with gorgeously painted buildings, Panjim is unrivaled in its big city feel and its small town ways. It feels like an India that should have been but got lost somewhere in the transition to modernity


To many Goans, this restful capital is the big, bad and stressful place. So in what havens do they live? For one thing, there’s our small village that is less than ten minutes away from the busy National Highway 17 from Bombay to Kerala. Anchored by the white splendor of St Elizabeth Church, it is the capital of quiet.


Nestled between river-riven paddy fields and a picturesque hill, our village does not feature on a local map of Goa. Of an evening, residents gather at the church piazza, which has a bucolic view of the paddy fields and an unnamed river in the distance. There, they while away the evening with a snifter or two of feni, watching young people play volleyball in the church compound and talking about things that I would dearly like to know about.


It is an appealing scene. We don’t participate in it but simply in observing it and waving to the people as we drive past the plaza, we feel part of it. In a vicarious way, we feel we belong there. That is the attraction of Goa.


***

Gallery


The reason I was in Goa last Monsoon was to sort out arrangements for my daughter’s wedding later in the fall. Fittingly, the ceremony was held in our village church, a stone’s throw from our house.


We had a traditional Goan Catholic wedding with Goan cuisine, band, dance and cocktails at our house. The event represented my traverse of a full circle from the pre-teen years when I first encountered Goan Catholics in central Bombay’s Byculla Bridge neighborhood and the end of my teen years when I met my wife, also a Goan Catholic to my part Goan daughter’s nuptials last year.


The trip to Morjim Beach was special alone time for me, an opportunity to take stock. Mesmerized by the Monsoon tableau and lost in thought, I could feel the hard rain falling on me. I thought to dash to the car but was drenched. I looked up at the sky in abandon. With the rain in my face, the spectacular jags of lightning in my eyes and the roar of thunder and crashing surf in my ears, I yelled at the top of my voice, “Thank you.”


Copyright Rajiv Desai 2008


Sunday, June 21, 2009

Father’s Day in New York

Will They Still Need Me?

“This holiday was one etched in sadness as well as thankfulness.” A pastor in the town of Monangah in West Virginia, perhaps the poorest state in the US, said these words at a memorial service for 360 men, who were killed in a coal mine disaster in December 1906. His Central United Methodist Church was the site of the first celebration of Father’s Day in 1908. The prayers were in honor of the fathers who died. The day was observed in different places at different times. It became official when President Richard Nixon proclaimed it a national holiday in 1972; the day fixed was the third Sunday in June.

Many years later, when I lived in Chicago, my first daughter was born. To mark the occasion, my mother gave us a plaque, which said “You should give your children roots and wings.” Four years later, my younger one showed up on a snowy, cold December afternoon. With two children competing for attention and resources, I became aware of the role of the father.

Fast forward to Father’s Day 2007: my younger daughter, a resident New “Yawker,” took me to McSorley’s, the oldest pub on the buzzing Lower East Side, where she lives, to quaff a few beers with her friends. She is focused on making a life for herself in “this city that never sleeps;” she works hard and when she has the free time, she and her friends make the most of “New York, New York;” as Frank Sinatra sang. His refrain: “If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere…it’s up to you…”

My older one is the take-charge type, who can fix anything from an insurance policy to an airline ticket; from a major PowerPoint presentation to pointed research. The venue for her achievements is Delhi; she enjoys her free time with her friends from all over the world who happen to live in Delhi. She travels the world with an easy sophistication that I never knew. Fathers should be so lucky, as I have been with both my daughters, who are happy to share their lives with me.

My older daughter’s roots and my younger one’s wings are a perfect foil for my mother’s advice. They both make their way in the world. They are off and running: one protecting the roots, the other projecting the wings. Yet there is a disturbing arrhythmia in my mind. My thoughts go back to the vacations we shared together and I hope we can do it again and again as we did for many years in Goa, in Southeast Asia, in Europe and in the United States. The sadness comes from knowing such togetherness will become less frequent in the years to come.

These sentiments are a luxury that today’s fathers enjoy. When I was growing up, fathers were remote persons. Whether liberal or conservative, they just did not get involved in their children’s lives. The authoritarian ones ran their children’s lives according to their worldview; the more liberal ones simply accepted things. If they couldn’t control their children or satisfy them with material or ideological baubles, they pulled back and became even more distant.

Father’s Day is when children honor and indulge their father. I’m a sucker for the syrupy sentimentality that goes with it. For me, it has always been a pause; a chance to remember the wonderful times growing up with my children; to recognize that the relationship with them is always ambiguous. You love them, let them be and hope for nothing in return. Most times, you experience pure joy; other times, there may be sheer aggravation. That’s unconditional love. Underlying it is a bittersweet taste: as fathers we tried to move heaven and earth to smooth things for our children when they were dependent on us. The haunting question is: will they still need me when I’m 64?

On a brighter note, some day I will have grandchildren on my knee.


A version of this article appeared in Bombay's DNA newspaper in June 2007.


Copyright Rajiv Desai 2009

Friday, June 19, 2009

Tessin Journal

Living Gandhi’s Dream

This mountainous county in southeastern Switzerland straddles the border with Italy. On the Swiss side, the picturesque little village of Gordola stretches from the bottom to the top of a hill. We are sitting in the upper reaches under a bower sheltered by a grapevine with clusters of fruit hanging within arm’s reach. Looking across the valley, we can see the Ticcino River as it runs into Lago (Lake) Maggiore, of which we have an expansive view. We are at the home of our niece Lisa Pereira and her husband Beat Ferrario, having dinner that comprises salads, vegetables, meat, fruit and wine…and every item on the menu is local, grown and made in Tissin.

In the course of the evening I learn that the people here pride themselves in their self-reliance: they eat locally-grown produce and meat and drink locally-bottled wine made from local grapes, especially a Merlot, which seems to be the trademark drink of the area. Watching the sun set at around 10 pm, I marveled at the simplicity and sophistication of life in this bounteous place.

The local angle got me thinking: isn’t this what Mohandas Gandhi said when he talked about Indian villages being self sufficient? “Every village will be a republic… (It) has to be self sustained and capable of managing its affairs even to the extent of defending itself against the whole world,” he wrote in the Harijan, some 63 years ago, on July 28, 1946. So while the Swiss people exult in their village republics, they also have a global presence with world beating companies in pharmaceuticals, chemicals, machine tools, textile machinery and also in lifestyle brands like Swatch, Omega, Mont Blanc and even ultimately the Swiss Army.

Sadly, in India, villages are dens of filth and inequity; major stumbling blocks to progress. As far as global brands, India now finally boasts some companies like Infosys, Wipro and Tata. In political terms, self sufficiency in India means cronyism and a seller’s market. But the Swiss version, which I experienced in Tessin, was modern and enlightened. I thought to myself: isn’t this exactly what Gandhi advocated?

In reviewing Amartya Sen’s book, The Argumentative Indian, the historian Ramchandra Guha wrote: “As a multilingual and yet democratic country, India’s only rival is Switzerland.” Guha’s review in the Economic and Political Weekly, October 8, 2005, was a scathing dismissal of Sen’s book, which has become the bible of the soft left in India, especially the partially literate politicians in the Congress Party. But Indian politics need not detain us here. Guha hit the nail on the head. Switzerland appears to have been the model on the basis of which Gandhi proffered his theory about village republics.

However, what Guha overlooked was that India shares the same diversity with the United States. His comparison of India and Switzerland gives me strength because at a dinner in a suburb of Zurich with the Ferrario family, I was asked what I thought about Switzerland and I said, to the horror of my interlocutors, that their country was the America of Europe: cultural diversity as well as technological prowess. My assessment was challenged with zest. I could have also brought India into the comparison except that as Guha wrote, it is “much poorer and much more diverse.”

It is a shame that my experience in Tessin has to be explained in terms of political ideology. On the contrary, the region is best described in poetic excess, with wide-eyed wonderment and innocent verse. It matches the beauty of the Himalayan regions; it is cleaner and its villages more picturesque. Above all, its inhabitants display a zeal for locally produced victuals, bread, wine, produce and meat: the essentials of the good life. They are prosperous and smiling; on the other hand, India’s hill dwellers only have a hard luck story to tell, much like the Swiss some 100 years ago.

Our experience in Tessin was a slice of heaven. The taste of the food and the wine still lingers in my taste buds as much as the tableaux in my eyes. On the way back, we stopped in Zurich, where the blue-green Limmat River flows swiftly through. I am still struck by images of young people swimming in the river, right in the heart of the city. Asked to describe Switzerland in one word, I would unhesitatingly say: “Gandhian.”

During the trip, I explained the comparative analysis to my American-born daughters. They both chorused in unison: “Lighten up, Dad, we’re on vacation.” But the comparison, I guess, is part of the Indian cross I have to bear everywhere I go.

A version of this article appeared in Bombay’s DNA newspaper in July 2006.


Copyright Rajiv Desai 2009

Friday, June 12, 2009

New England Journal

A Triumph of Family Ties

Providence’s T F Green Airport bills itself as an international airport because it has flights to Canada. Stripped of its pretensions, it is really small and nice regional terminal that serves southern New England and is an alternative to Boston’s chaotic Logan airport. It is in Rhode Island, America’s smallest state, many of whose politicians are serving penal sentences. Despite its corrupt politics, the “Ocean State” is a laid back place, focused historically on fishing and sailing. So much like Goa.

Providence is one of the earliest cities settled in the United States, in 1636. It is a pretty little city settled on the banks of the river of the same name. To live in the city is to have the best of the both worlds: you have all the urban conveniences in a small town environment. Also, as one of the first industrialized cities, Providence boasts of old wealth as well as old immigrant cultures.

Its old wealth is well represented, not least by the Ivy League Brown University but also its playground for the wealthy, Newport, where the truly rich come out to cavort. Two years ago, I went boating in Narragansett Bay, which shelters the Rhode Island coastline from the vagaries of the Atlantic Ocean. Sailing in the bay, I realized that recreation is more fun than mere leisure.

Last month, I arrived there to spend the weekend with my nephew Nikhil, who lives in a Boston suburb, less than an hour from Providence. He met me in the terminal and helped me lug my bags to his car in the parking lot. The pleasant transfer experience stood out in sharp contrast to the chaos at Dabholim airport in Goa, which is India’s Ocean State. The chaos and discomfort of Dabholim is self inflicted. Apart from the inept and corrupt Airports Authority of India that “runs” the airport, there are dyspeptic security staff, officious airline staffers, touts and sloppy, uncaring passengers who pay no need to the demands of civil behavior.

At the T F Green Airport, the experience was as smooth as silk. It was all very civilized. In just a few minutes, we were buckled up in Nikhil’s car and soon, after a pleasant drive, we arrived at his place.

It was my last weekend stateside. And what better way to spend it than with Nikhil and my younger daughter who arrived the same day from New York City. Mind you, there is a significant difference in the years we’ve spent on this planet. Yet we had fun together. The question is: were they just being dutiful? In my own mind, the answer is a resounding no. My nephew and my daughter took the time from their relentlessly busy professional and social lives to spend the time with me.

For all the years I lived in America: making it to the office by eight in the morning and slaving until five pm, I valued my weekends; they were private. It took, as it still does, a superhuman effort to do much more than wake up late, watch television or throw (in those days) a video into the machine and vegetate. Given my near neurotic weekend mindset, I admired the fact that my hardworking daughter, who made the trip from Manhattan, and my equally busy nephew, graciously gave up a lot of much-needed downtime to spend the weekend with me. I loved every minute of it.

Most important, they made me feel warm and fuzzy. Amazingly, we did not go out to any of Boston’s great restaurants but spent the time together at my nephew’s house. When we went out, we went to Boston’s Fan Pier, to savor the flavor of the Volvo Ocean Race. It was breezy and cold but all kinds of fun. We spent a wonderful afternoon at the pier, listening to music, turning up our collar to what Simon and Garfunkel called “the cold and damp.” It was still daylight so our eyes were not stabbed by the flash of any light, neon or otherwise.

The weekend was a revelation. This next generation seems to have the same hunger as I had when I arrived in the US in the early 1970s. Difference is they have several things going for them: they demand things where we took what we got and made the best of it. More important, they feel they belong; no supplication. They lived through the George W Bush era but are really Obama’s children. We were the Woodstock generation with long hair and rock music, full of antipathy to the mainstream. They are the mainstream.

It ended all too soon. Sunday morning, we found ourselves at Boston’s Logan Airport; not to fly but to rent a car. We were heading to JFK, from where I was booked to fly to Delhi. Since 1999, I’ve been doing the road trip between Boston and New York. I know the route well. Plus my daughter, who was the navigator, had her Blackberry that told us instantly the smoothest way. We talked up a storm. She told me about her life in Manhattan and I asked questions, not as a stentorian father but as a curious George. All fathers should have the opportunity.

Eventually, we made it to JFK and took a train from the Hertz parking lot to my terminal. I still had an hour to kill. My plan was to go the lounge and have a glass of wine. But the daughter said she’d hang with me. So we stuck around the concourse until she said she had to leave. As I watched her disappear into the crowd, I sighed and walked into the lounge; there to have the wine.

What a cocktail: full-bodied red wine, rich memories of the weekend, a lump in my throat and misty eyes!


Copyright Rajiv Desai 2009

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Pull-back from the brink

In one fell swoop, the world’s largest, most diverse electorate pulled the country back from the brink. In deference to the aspirations of the rising middle class, the centre held and gave the country a real chance against the barbarism that has threatened to sink it. Going into India’s 15th general election, posturing politicians and clueless media created a scare that India was doomed to uncertainty, its future mortgaged to small-time caste chieftains and fringe fascist groups.

Meanwhile, the BJP was at its hectoring loudest with its communal propaganda. The Left pretended to be a rallying point for petty regional satraps, who seemed to spring from every nook and cranny. Nobody gave the Congress a chance, writing it off as a spent force with no grassroots support.

The recently concluded first term of the UPA government was notable for the boorish behaviour of the opposition BJP and the churlish support of the Left parties. The BJP blatantly refused to let Parliament function with its vocal opposition and strong-arm tactics. The Left, an erstwhile UPA ally, embarked on a foolhardy course of confrontation with the prime minister that eventually led to a rupture.

Fortunately, timely backing of the Samajwadi Party helped the government win the confidence vote precipitated by the Left’s withdrawal of support over the Indo-US nuclear deal. But even then the BJP persisted with its dramatic obstructionism, producing legislators waving wads of money in the well of the house; money they claimed was offered to them to switch sides. Meanwhile, the Mayawati-led BSP circled over this melee like a vulture hoping to scavenge the remains of the political process.

Reflected in the boorish glare of media incompetence, the political imbroglio seemed like some dark and foreboding Shakespearean tragedy in which judgement had fled to brutish beasts and men had lost their reason. Many of us hoped for the best but feared the worst.

The clamour surrounding the general election obscured a fundamental reality: India has changed and the vast majority of its people are either actually or by aspiration, middle class. Thanks to the government’s inclusive policies, the number of stakeholders in the India growth project has increased dramatically. The 2009 election outcome allows us to hope that a critical mass has been achieved to stabilise the ship of state.

One thing is clear: old divides of caste and religion were bridged as the Congress chalked up support across caste and religious lines. It’s now obvious that voters are tired of posturing and brinkmanship; they’ve had it with screaming and shouting over non-issues; they have rejected twisted propaganda that a non-Congress, non-BJP alternative is a possibility. The confused media purveyed this line, adding to the noise and distortions of the campaign. But voters showed maturity and a deep concern for the future to vote in the Congress-led coalition.

As such, voters have plumped for stability over chaos, substance over frivolity, wisdom over cunning, decency over crudity. In the same fell swoop, voters have put paid to the political future of L.K. Advani, Mayawati, Mulayam Singh, Lalu Prasad, Ram Vilas Paswan, Jayalalitha, Arjun Singh and even Narendra Modi, whose low and abusive style turned people off everywhere and has drawn criticism from all quarters, including the BJP. These men and women were mainly responsible for the chaotic and confused politics of the two decades past.

Yet, perhaps the most significant outcome of the recent general election is that the people of India seem to have acknowledged that shallow and divisive politics is the prime reason behind the lack of development and the persistence of poverty across large swathes of the country. This new awareness is hugely welcome. Now there’s a real possibility that politics could become a facilitator of growth and equity rather than the corrupt and cynical power play it became in the last three decades of the 20th century.

The election result also has global consequences. To be sure, it enhances India’s standing in the world. In a rough neighbourhood pocked with the likes of Pakistan’s Taliban, Sri Lanka’s LTTE, Nepal’s Maoists and Bangladeshi Islamists, India is a haven of stability and progress. It boasts a rapidly expanding middle class that can become a leading engine of global economic growth. Investors understand that potential demand here could drive the global economy and keep it chugging for the next few decades.

Just think: despite fast-track growth in the telecom sector, penetration is barely 40 percent. Nearly 700 million Indians remain to be hooked on to the telecom grid. It’s the same with automobiles, power, transportation, construction, retail, civil aviation, agriculture and what have you. Is it any wonder the stock market took off into the stratosphere within minutes after it opened on the Monday after the election results were announced?

In the next two decades, India could leapfrog into the ranks of developed countries. The 2009 election outcome prophesies that the transformation has begun in earnest. It is wonderful that it was ushered in by the largest voter franchise in the world.


This Column Appeared in Education World, June 2009


Copyright Rajiv Desai 2009

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Cincinnati Journal

New Beginnings, Old Friendship

The drive from Chicago to Cincinnati, Ohio, takes about five hours. Estelle and I did the round trip every fortnight when we founded, edited and designed a community newspaper called India Tribune in 1977. Thirty-two years later, I navigated the Dan Ryan Expressway to the Chicago Skyway to get to Interstate 65, the highway that cuts a southeasterly direction through Indiana into southwestern Ohio. The last time I’d driven the route was in 1987, just before we returned to India, when we drove to the East Coast and stopped at the various places we’d lived including Cincinnati.

Twenty-two years later, I still found my way into the city and crossed the bridge over the Ohio River into Kentucky. I was headed to Maysville, a pretty little town on the bank of the mighty river. My friend Yuri always says to me, “When was the last time you did something for the first time?” Well this was a first. As I pulled into the steep driveway that took me down to Elisabeth’s place, I hummed an old Tin Pan Alley song made famous by Duke Ellington: I’m Just a Lucky So-and-So.

Let me explain: I’ve made it a point to look up old friends all over the world. In the process, I’ve found all of my good friends, going back all the way to the 1950s and re-established connections. There’s nothing quite as satisfying as new bonds in old friendships. Elisabeth was our dearest friend when we lived in Cincinnati in the mid-1970s. She had an elegance that could launch a thousand ships. We were smitten by her. For me personally, she was a turning point in my world view. She came from an old wealth Cincinnati family. As such, she was the object of Liberal derision in a discussion at which I was present. The majority seemed to feel Elisabeth’s views were inconsequential because she was of the Establishment. This was at the height of the liberal-conservative polarization in America. Woolly-headed leftist though I was in those days, I found myself springing to her defense.

In many ways that was my turning point. I realized that for all the free love and drugs, the Woodstock generation was not about to change the world as promised. It was then that I began to change from a Liberal to a liberal. The lower-case liberals were more inclusive; the capital-letter ones were every bit as prejudiced as the rednecks that were the targets of their ire

With the Ellington song playing on my lips and these thoughts buzzing in my head, I got out of my car into a fond and long embrace with Elisabeth. When we disengaged, she introduced me to her husband Orloff, a delightful man with varied interests. Their home is a piece of heaven, not just because of the sweeping vistas of the river but for the warmth and comfort it exudes. We sat on the porch drinking scotch and catching up. By the time, we finished dinner all of Kentucky was fast asleep; on our part we squeezed every minute for every second talking and it wasn’t just about the old days.

Among the many things we talked about, there was one distressing note. Elisabeth said that after 1995 through the turn of the century, Cincinnati became a race-troubled city. Apparently, in the period, many young black men were killed by policemen or died in police custody. Things boiled over in 2001, when a white police officer shot and killed a 19-year old black man. In April 2001, the city was paralyzed as riots broke out in the downtown and surrounding areas. The violence continued for five days.

“That’s when we decided to move out of the city,” Elisabeth said. It must have been wrenching. Her family ties to the city are well known and highly respected. In many ways, despite the piece of heaven she now lives in, Elisabeth’s story had the undertones of displacement. And I thought to myself that the uprooting of such a distinguished family from a city of grace and manners was something to regret and lament.

In the end, these turned out to be desultory thoughts. Three decades later, Elisabeth is still as pretty as a picture and as gracious and elegant as when I first met her. It is easy to love her as we did in the 1970s. For myself, I am glad to catch up with her again. The best new beginnings are of old friendship.


Copyright Rajiv Desai 2009

Monday, June 1, 2009

New York City Journal

A Weekend in Manhattan

After a long and difficult flight from Delhi, my weariness melted away as I walked out of the immigration and customs clearance area at JFK. She was standing there, all of 24, a Lower East Side sophisticate and simply gorgeous. She rushed out from under the barrier and hugged me. “Hi Daddy,” she said. Then she took charge. Taxis, hotel check-in, local cell phone and what have you. I’m a very lucky father because both my daughters look after me with the same persnickety concern that I had when I took care of them.

The older one booked my passage to New York, worrying about my aisle seat and my meal preference, which for some reason has been put down in every airline as a “Hindu” special. I had to convince the stewardess that I’d prefer steak and a glass of Merlot. Believe me: the food was really good though the seats were not very comfortable.

The younger daughter took over after I reached JFK. As she shepherded me through the airport, I could see she had changed in the year since I had been with her in New York. Sure, she had been in India in the interim; they always say it is better to see lions in their own habitat. And in her precinct that is the aspirational model for every cool person in the world, she shines and is carelessly sophisticated.

When I was much younger and first came to New York in the company of my friend David Swanson, a native, the city was a dream. He lived in the Village and effortlessly took me to the best, off-the-beaten track restaurants and bars. I loved every minute of the experience in the 1970s. Three decades later, I’m cruising the “hoods” in the Lower East Side with my younger daughter and discovering even cooler places. All fathers should be so lucky.

All these years, I’ve looked after every need of my daughters. Today I count myself fortunate that they take care of me. I can manage on my own of course but there’s a special joy in having competent and caring daughters look after you. I’ve always believed that sophistication came very easily to me. But at brunch last Sunday at a trendy little bistro on the Lower East Side, I ordered a draught beer with my Eggs Benedict where my younger one ordered a Mimosa, champagne and orange juice, with her apple pancake.

The afternoon I arrived, when she broke through the barrier and hugged me, we drove to my hotel. The room was not ready and I was jet-lagged. “Father,” she says to me, “I’ve got the perfect cure.” We checked my bag with the concierge and rode a cab to “The Frying Pan,” a beer and burger place on a barge on the Hudson River on the West Side. There we indulged a couple of beers and what to me was one of the better burgers I’ve had, period.

Later that evening, we checked out the cafes and bars near Union Square, close to where she lived when she enrolled at NYU six years ago. She had made a reservation at a 19th street restaurant called “crafts” but we still had to wait until a table became available. So much for the recession! The restaurant was abuzz; Manhattan at its weekend best. The ambience was great and food to match.

More important, it was a glimpse into my daughter’s world. At age 24, she lives in the trendy Lower East Side and works in edgy SoHo. Her job is also a very 21st century enterprise having to do with the production of interactive multimedia content. The very fact that she landed a satisfying job in the midst of a raging recession seems to have buoyed her confidence. Where half a million people lose their jobs each month, she switched jobs. Deservedly, she is very proud of her new position and excitedly displays her fancy new business card.

As always, the visit proved too short. We spent virtually every minute of my stay together. As I got in the cab to head for the airport, I looked back at her receding figure, waving at me. I heard a song go out of my heart. Amazingly, it wasn’t Ellington or Billie Holiday or Louis Armstrong. The lines that reverberated in my head were from a song in the film, "The Sound of Music:"

Somewhere in my youth or childhood,
I must have done something good…


Daughters are a blessing to begin with but to love them and have them love you back is a fulfillment of the highest order.

Copyright Rajiv Desai 2009