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Monday, June 21, 2010

American Life 5

Washington DC: A New Home

The five-day-long party that was DC began in New York City’s West Village on a Saturday afternoon. My daughter and I stood outside a café, waiting for our friends Gautam and Rita and their daughter Brinda and her husband Peter. Suddenly, amid the general noise of revelry that envelops this oh-so-cool segment of Manhattan, I heard someone call my name in the distance. I looked around because my name is not a common one in these parts. And there across the street, I saw Gautam waving at me.

We crossed the street to join them and to begin what turned out to be five rollicking and fulfilling days. Gautam has served as the senior most editor in The Times of India and is the founding editor of Bombay’s newest daily, DNA. Above all, he is a rock star whose rendition of Elvis Presley’s Hound Dog can get even a lead-footed person to do gyrations on the dance floor. In his days in India, he was a regular at our house; all our friends took to him and he became part of our family.

So there we were on the brink of a raucous evening in Manhattan. We went to a blues bar and ate dinner in a French bistro before traipsing home with a song let out of our heart. It was a memorable evening, even if we had too much wine. When good friends get together in a happening place like the West Village, you can be sure it will be a highlight (dare I be unsubtle and say: yes there were lights and yes we were high).

So after an evening in the Village, Sunday morning we hit I-95 en route to Washington DC. For all the 229 miles of the way, I luxuriated in the company of Gautam and Rita. I was excited to be going to DC after too many years. The plan was to arrive at their place in Chevy Chase in the early afternoon and then head out to the home of their friends for dinner and singsong with guitars. These are friends whom we’d met last summer at the wedding in Vermont where Brinda and Peter took their vows in a gorgeous farm in Vermont.

Can people talk to each other for five straight days and never once be bored? With Gautam and Rita, it’s not only easy but enjoyable. We talked about the whole world, about rock’n roll, The Beatles, Indo-US relations, and what have you. The most amazing thing about being with them is you can talk about foreign policy, international relations, and world economics but also about music, going back to the good old days of Hindi film music and classic rock.

A friend christened Rita “chopdi (book) aunty,” given her voluminous knowledge of just about everything under the sun, starting from education to Bollywood. You want to know about the latest issues on education? About the lives of Bollywood stars? About the story behind the Oscar awards? About the buzz in DC, New York, Boston, Bombay or Delhi? Rita’s got it all down pat. She is the source: wire service, book of quotations, thesaurus and encyclopedia, all rolled into one. What she doesn’t know is not worth knowing.

Coming into Washington after a long gap was an immensely interesting prospect for a public affairs junkie like me. This is the capital of the world, where leaders from all nations come to get things done. It’s also the first time I came to DC where Martin Luther King’s dream had come true in the election of Barack Obama to the presidency. Obama is from my hometown, Chicago.

As we drove around the city, I was struck by the small-town beauty of the place. There were flowers everywhere and people were dressed in their spring best: linens and cottons. To read the newspapers and to watch television, you’d expect a sense of doom and gloom. I saw none of it. The cafés were full; restaurants were abuzz and people were walking about with a spring in their step.

“There’s John Podesta,” said Gautam as we drove around the downtown area, close to the White House. He was crossing the street. Podesta, another Chicago boy, served as White House Chief of Staff for three years under Bill Clinton. As you drive around the stressful streets of Delhi, you are not likely to see any person of any consequence, surrounded as they are by security and minions. And walking? What a contrast!

There is an understated elegance about Washington. The city seems to know it is the center of the world. It doesn’t have to pretend. Economic upturns and dips have little impact on it. Everyone seems to be confident about their jobs and income. True, there are neighborhoods in the city where America’s recession-hit economy is playing havoc. But to walk the streets, you feel the sense of power and stability.

While it seems not to have the buzz of New York or the vitality of Chicago or the laid back sophistication of San Francisco or the in-your-face character of Los Angeles, Washington stands for stability. It reminded me Kipling’s poem If:

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you
But make allowance for their doubting too,

In the middle of the storm of terrorism, financial malfeasance and natural and other disasters, Washington is the focal point of stability-seeking billions in the world. Yes, there’s Iraq and Afghanistan, the oil spill and Katrina, bailouts and joblessness. But if we didn’t have Washington, we would have to invent it.

We need Washington. In this capital, a click of computer keys can change the fate of global business; can challenge ruthless dictators; can hold multinationals accountable; can take on terrorism; can boost the world economy. All the misbegotten activists, who blame Washington for all the ills in the world, should know there are institutions in this city that successfully fight against child labor, dowry deaths, communicable diseases, sweatshops, hunger and poverty.

I spent most of the week in Washington, meeting friends in government, lobbying firms and multilateral organizations. What struck me was that in the interim, I came away more informed about global issues and to understand that the power people in Washington are as skeptical of multinational firms as the activists, who make a fetish of being anti-American.

Another revelation was that India is not a hot button in the media or public debate. The only people who seem to care about our benighted country are the people in the White House, the State Department and the Defense Department; also people in the arts and culture, which is not a bad list. But in the general milieu, India may as well be the Central African Republic. India has to struggle to get noticed. Since George W Bush, it has been helped along by these various arms of the US government.

In the end, the nicest thing about my visit to the capital was to know that it is one more city I can call my home. There’s Chicago, of course; New York City, where my daughter holds sway; Boston, the home of my favorite nephew. But now there’s Washington, where Gautam, my soul mate, enjoys his life.

Copyright Rajiv Desai 2010

Monday, June 14, 2010

American Life 4

Chicago, My Kind of Town

On a bright beautiful spring morning, I landed in Chicago, where I have a family of friends. The airport, the city, the drive to River Forest is full of fond memories. This is the town that I’ve come back to, over and over again. It’s just gotten better and better. What more can I say: I love Chicago.

As I lug my bag across the street and wait in the vestibule for my friend Prakash to pick me up, I wonder about my past life in this city of broad shoulders. Usually, it was my wife and two excited kids, who would welcome me back from wherever. “Love ya, Dad,” my daughters would trill as I kissed my wife. What a warm comforting feeling it was!

In the event, Prakash pulls up to the sidewalk and gives me a hug. I am back home, I think to myself as I snap the seatbelt on, en route the familiar way to the Oak Park-River Forest area, where we lived. As we drive to Prakash’s house in River Forest, I look out the window and go into a reverie of my happy days in Chicago.

It’s my town, the toddlin’ town; I ask myself: why did you ever leave here? The existential question was in my mind as we drove through the familiar streets. What I looked forward to was a wonderful week with friends and the sheer joy of being there. This is the city where I got my first job, bought my first house; where my daughters were born. I lived here in the heady days, when my fellow columnist in the Chicago Tribune newspaper invented the word “yuppie.” It is the city of jazz and blues but also the Chicago Symphony, one of the finest orchestras in the world.

Chicago is where I grew up and learned the lesson of self sustenance. It wasn’t easy but the city permeated me with a sense of optimism: tomorrow will always be better than today. You can do anything, do what you want: that was the city’s ethic. And it has become better and better, leaving me breathless with wonder. This is a city that has transformed itself from the Rust Belt blues into a shining example of urban renewal. On hindsight, it seems to be obvious that Chicago would throw up a Barack Obama.

The reveries came to an end as Prakash pulled into his driveway. We got my bag out and I settled myself into the bedroom that his wife Alice reserves for me. Then I came down and waited over a beer for our fiends to show for the traditional pizza party when I arrive.

We had the pizzas and the beer and talked late into the night. My family of friends was keen to know about India and its ways. They wanted to talk to me about politics, the economy and every other aspect of India; they had many questions. For my part, I was just grateful to be there in the city that I love and the friends whom I miss fiercely.

Clearly though, there was no escaping the questions. I had to answer. But my message was clear: I’m here to escape from the loud ineptitude of India. Nevertheless, development issues like jobs, equity, education and health care are important to my friends. This goes back many decades to the 1970s when we had formed India Forum to discuss and debate the issues.

Among the members of India Forum in Chicago was Satu “Sam” Pitroda, in whose office we held our Sunday morning meetings. In the early 1980s, when Rajiv Gandhi appeared on the scene; many of us, including Sam, moved to India in the hope of changing things. What we did not reckon for was the strange ways of politicians and the slimy ways of bureaucracy. They opposed us tooth and nail. Our optimism was singed by the relentless cynicism of the bureaucracy and the political establishment.

In the end though, we succeeded beyond our wildest imagination. From being a basket case, India is now regarded as an engine of global growth. We have “development” in India now but it is subverted into mediocrity by the knot of ignorant politicians and venal bureaucrats. The Indian system is simply unable to deal with growth and the concomitant demands for fairness and transparency.

That evening in Chicago over pizza and beer, old friends met and talked about the issues. As the evening wore on and I was steeped in being there; it was almost as if I had never left. Dreamy as I was, I felt it was late and I had to go home. Our house was barely a mile away from where my friends live. It may have been the beer. I lost track and thought I had to go home to my wife and daughters.

It is so easy within hours of arriving in Chicago to believe I had never left. I know how to get around, driving myself. I know where to shop, where to eat, where to drink. I know the city like the back of my hand. It is a city I proudly call my home. It’s a place where the ordinary citizen can enjoy music, plays, festivals…all free; all in celebration of the citizen.

Back in Delhi, I find the city only works for VIPs. Ordinary citizens have to fend for themselves. Nevertheless, citizens do not cover themselves in glory either. They drive like lunatics, make general nuisances of themselves including urinating on the street and defecating in public view.

One of the issues that never came up for discussion that night was India’s quest for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. But it weighed on my mind. If the various local and state governments and the federal government cannot stop people from peeing or defecating on the streets, never mind the Naxalites or a rational policy governing foreign investors, why would anyone back India for a seat as a permanent member?

A permanent member of the Security Council is expected to have a foreign policy that includes a broad commitment to international community that your policies will enhance the world’s security. For that you need a strategic vision, which is nowhere in evidence.

Which is why India will never have a city like Chicago: aesthetically pleasing, citizen friendly and forever innovative.

Copyright Rajiv Desai 2010

Monday, June 7, 2010

Bureaucratic Subversion

The Bane of New India

When the government steered the Right to Education bill through Parliament, those of us who had fought for it through two decades were pleased. The important thing, however, is how the act would be notified. The language of the bill leaves a lot of gray areas. And well it might because bureaucrats wrote it and they will fully exploit the obfuscation. For example, they will come down heavily on private schools that cater to the poor in urban slums and rural areas and impose impossible conditions that such enterprises simply cannot fulfill.

There are too many vested interests: the government school system; the high-end private schools that have bribed their way into existence and above all, the alternative NGO schools that survive on government subsidies. With such firepower arraigned against it, the RTE bill will go the way of every well-meaning initiative of the government such the NREGA or the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan. The net outcome will be zero. And so everything will come to naught.

If this sounds cynical, then you should listen to my story about a small community on the outskirts of Delhi. This is an upscale community of successful professionals that includes about 30 houses. It is an oasis in the chaos of Delhi, with trees and birdsong. It’s a wonderful community where neighbors meet frequently to have a drink or dinner and to discuss issues of India’s development. The people who live there are respected professionals whose interests span public health, wildlife conservation, media, law and what have you.

The community came into being in the early 1990s. Because it was part of rural Delhi, it was offered no municipal services like water, sanitation or roads, never mind street lighting. Like pioneers, residents made their own arrangements: people built septic tanks, drilled bore wells and got their own garbage collection. Power was an issue until distribution was privatized, when the resident association petitioned the distribution company. Realizing these were high-end customers, the company quickly ensured that power cuts and fluctuations were minimized.

On the roads issue, the resident association petitioned the Delhi government arguing from a taxpayer viewpoint; so the road was built: badly but still motorable. It took several years including the fact that the first allotment of several crores was swallowed by the pirates of the Municipal Corporation of Delhi. Now this community faces water a problem because the bore wells have dried up. This is precious real estate but more important it represents the single major investment for most of the residents. Without water, their homes are worth nothing.

The association applied to the Delhi government for permission to drill a community bore well. It seemed a logical and eco-friendly thing to do. But between the local water authority, the local police and several residents who had bribed their way into deepening their bore wells, the application has been kicked around from pillar to post.

So here you have this huge Indian-style standoff: members of the community paid bribes to the water authority and the police to deepen their wells. As a result, other residents found their bore wells running dry. When the association sought to build a community well, some residents and recipients of their bribes in the water authority and the local police struck a dissonant note.

Between corrupt citizens, bureaucrats, police officials and local politicians, this pleasant community is caught in a cleft. It needs the rule of law to be enforced but the local government: the municipality and the police, are locked in various corrupt projects. Residents of the community are not without influence but stand divided because several members, who own houses there, are compromised because the deals they did to buy their houses don’t stand up to scrutiny.

This is a small localized community problem, to be sure. But its implications have a larger footprint. Even though the union government has introduced various enlightened policies, local governance is caught in a medieval time warp. In the matter of schools as well: a sweeping and enlightened law stands to be subverted on the rocks of bad governance. In notifying the RTE act, many activists fear the education bureaucracy will not let private schools for the poor flourish.

Then there is the issue of the RTE-mandated 25 percent quota for poor children in private schools. The vast majority of private schools, however, cater to the poor. So how will the quota be enforced? Clearly, framers of the bill were thinking of the elite private schools with no acknowledgment of the private schools for the poor.

Whether it is the private schools for the poor or the community bore well for the upscale Delhi community, governance is still held hostage to the ideology of the bureaucracy. The bureaucracy lords it over the poor and is prejudiced against the affluent (not rich). In the event, private schools for the poor will be held hostage to the bureaucracy’s prejudice against education as commerce; likewise the South Delhi community must suffer because the bureaucrats of the water authority dismiss it as an “affluent colony” that deserves nothing from the government.

In the end, the admirable RTE bill stands to be subverted by bureaucrats, who oppose all change. Residents of the affluent community will have to fight for their water against the very forces in charge of governance.

An edited version of this article appeared in Education World, June 2010.

Copyright Rajiv Desai 2010

Thursday, June 3, 2010

American Life 3

New York City: My Daughter’s Hometown

So here I am back again in the city that never sleeps. The airline has a limo waiting to take me to Gramercy, where my gorgeous daughter has an apartment. Her timing was perfect. By 6 pm, when I got to her place, she pulled up in a cab right behind me and helped me lug my bag upstairs to her apartment. What happened in between was a huge hug and kisses and the limo guy looked on indulgently

I’m back in Manhattan to spend the weekend with my very clued-in daughter. The weekend was a rediscovery of the Lower East Side with its great bars and amazing restaurants. She spent the time showing me her life in this wannabe piece of real estate in Lower Manhattan, where most people, especially twenty-somethings like her, would give their right arm to live. She lives there and knows it in a way that appeals to my sense of hedonism and aesthetics.

Can you be jealous of your own daughter? Difficult question: but I have no hesitation in saying I am envious of her lifestyle. Plus she is so Manhattan; she buys milk with no hormones, grass-fed meat, nuts, berries, dates and also cheese, wine, figs, dates, strawberries and the occasional champagne.

I’ve been visiting Manhattan since the early 1970s. I had a friend who introduced me to the genteel pleasures of the Upper East Side. I also came into the city for work and lived in fabulous hotels like The Plaza. But knowing the city through my daughter’s eyes is completely different. Clearly, she belongs there and makes me feel I too belong. And I can’t even begin to say how good it feels to have New York City as a second home.

So what is it about New York City, especially the Lower East Side that attracts bright young kids from all over the world to stay there? Chicago, where I virtually grew up, is a superb city. Its downtown Lakefront is seminally brilliant. Yet my daughter’s Lower East Side has character that is part gentrified but nevertheless is a neighborhood with ethnic diversity and post-modern slick.

I spent several weekends with her in the very recent past and she always managed to amaze me. We walked all over the place, went to great bars and ate in superb restaurants. When I was with her and drinking all these great cocktails and eating all this fabulous food, I thought to myself: my baby daughter is a New York girl: king of the hill; top of the pops.

Can a father be jealous of his daughter? No. I wish her well as one of the most fortunate members of the human race: not just to live in Manhattan but in the happening Lower East Side. I always tell my wife: if I ever had the chance to live and work there, I may have never relocated to India. In the event, nearly two decades since I moved to Delhi from the US, I have never regretted the relocation. But if I had been the suave sophisticate that my daughter is, India would never have featured in my life.

So I spent time with her in the city, walking the streets and in small parks that are things of beauty with gorgeous spring flowers; eating in wonderful restaurants and generally luxuriating in the ultimate urban experience. Between my warm and lovable daughter and the adventurous pleasure of Lower Manhattan, I was in heaven.

On the Monday, I took the flight to Chicago, comforted in the knowledge that I would be back within the week. I used always to spend more time in my hometown Chicago, than anywhere else in the US. For the past seven years, I seem to be spending more time in New York City, thanks to my daughter.

Manhattan may not be about blue skies and trees of green; it’s my daughter’s favorite song: Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World.” Truly, it is a wonderful world she lives in.

Copyright Rajiv Desai 2010