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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.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

City in Decline

Mumbai Sucks, Bombay Rocks
A global firm recently publicized a survey that found Bombay the second worst city to live in. It rated Zürich as the most livable. By the standard measures used in the survey, Bombay certainly ranks poorly. But those who live in the metro will not agree; they swear by the sheer intensity and vitality of urban life in the metropolis and would live in no other place. It is actually the only real city left in India. Few people in Bombay would want to live in Zürich, except those with Swiss bank accounts. The heart-stopping city is both: the hope and despair of India’s future.

I love Bombay. Juhu Beach is where I grew up. We moved to Warden Road, where I attended a quaint little Parsi school called New Model Infant School in Oomer Park, the setting in Salman Rushdie’s book, “Midnight's Children.” Later we lived in a wonderful art deco apartment house called Court Royal in Christ Church Lane, bordering the school of the same name in Byculla Bridge. Our buzzing lane was known for its gorgeous girls and its melting pot of Catholics, Parsis, Jews, Muslims, and Anglo Indians.

My old neighborhoods have changed beyond recognition. In Juhu’s Theosophical Colony, I believe there are still the bungalows and, I hope, the sense of community. The Besant Montessori School, where I attended pre-school, is presumably still around. To roam on the beach and play on the roads of the Walden-style colony was a treat then but now I realize was a huge privilege.

Walking on the beach from Juhu to Versova on a holiday morning was a treat. I felt I could be happy doing this for the rest of my life. When we said our morning prayer at the Besant Montessori school, unwittingly I replaced the phrase “thank you for the world so sweet” with “thank you for Versova.” This was long before the grim place called Lokhandwala.

In Juhu, my neighbors included Balraj Sahni and Prem Dhavan (the lyricist), among others. Many of them articulated anti-American views even while their children, like me, wore preppy penny loafers and striped T-shirts. This was my first experience with Indian hypocrisy. Diagonally across from our house was Ratilal Parekh, whose daughter Asha went on to make big waves in films. Our next-door neighbor was Devendra Goel, the film-maker who made escapist films that attracted large audiences. Given their fame and wealth, it was a bit of stretch for me to reconcile the Gandhian vision of simple living, high thinking.

Juhu then looked a lot like today’s Goa: coconut groves, white sand and blue sea. We walked freely on the beach and in the neighborhood. It was a wonderful island and to many friends and relatives, a weekend resort. Juhu was especially magical in the monsoon when we had to confront the rough sea and the swaying coconut trees that imperiled our roof.

When we moved to Christ Church Lane from Warden Road, I made friends with kids from different cultural backgrounds and there learned the value of India’s diversity. My friends and I gawked at the gorgeous girls the lane was famous for. It was the time of Pat Boone’s Bernadine, Elvis Presley’s Jailhouse Rock and Cliff Richard’s Dynamite. On Friday nights, we listened transfixed to a family of troubadours who showed up in our lane every week, singing wonderful songs like Little Serenade and Traveling Light. We used to hang out in our balconies after dinner listening to them but mostly ogling the gorgeous green-eyed daughter who sang seconds.

These wonderful memories came back to me when I read about the survey that trashed the city. Bombay has a unique culture: it is decadent, down market and egalitarian; its essence is the hallmark Tapori dialect. To be fair, the survey portrayed the city as it is today: on the brink, poised on the fine line between civilization and chaos; trapped in the nexus between the chauvinism of its political class and the violence of its underworld. Mumbai is very different from the solid middle class city of Bombay I grew up in.

from daily news and analysis april 4 2007

Yesterday Came Suddenly…

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Paul McCartney's Back

Now that he’s older, losing his hair, Paul McCartney has put out a new album, Memory Almost Full, stating his point of view. The songs are full of the past that haunts him and leads him to conclude that “all we wear is vintage clothes.” It is a lilting album that leaves us Beatles fans with a sweet and sour experience. In all his songs, except for the few where he is bitter about Heather Mills, Paul is telling us, as The Beatles have for nearly 40 years that “life is very short and there’s no time for fussing and fighting.”

In one of the songs in the album, Paul expresses disbelief that the years have flown by. “Yesterday came so suddenly,” Paul seems to say in his album. There is an element of gloom in his music, which is perhaps what makes it so haunting. The final song on the album is called “The End of The End”:

On the day that I die
I'd like bells to be rung
and songs that were sung
to be hung out like blankets
That lovers have played on
and laid on while listening
to songs that were sung.

Paul’s latest album is disconcerting.. He and his friends were simple Liverpool boys, jamming and having fun at the Cavern Club. The popularity that followed was frightening. Success turned their heads: it was sex, drugs and rock and roll. Their later albums, influenced hugely by their immense popularity, like The White Album, were individual works with different musicians even while they were marketed under The Beatles label. We didn’t know it then but we still loved the good old rock and roll music. Paul’s latest album is a signal that that we should accept that The Beatles era has drawn to an end; it will, nevertheless, live forever as nostalgia that spans generations and it is up to our children to pass it on to theirs.

Paul, John, George and Ringo made their own way in the world after the split. Their fans kept the band’s myth alive with the serum of nostalgia. In his latest album, Paul seems to be saying that all they did was made good music and later on experimented with new forms of rock. The icon status was bestowed on them and they dealt with it in different ways. In his song, “Ever Present Past,” Paul sings:

I couldn't understand the words that they were saying
but still I hung around and took it all in
I wouldn't join in with the games that they were playing.

The games that Paul laments are the ones we played as fans. We took four Liverpool boys and put them on a pedestal. They represented our middle class values of rebellion without really giving up the comforts. For me as an adolescent growing up in the confusion of India, they made me a member of a global youth community in which music was the currency. Amazingly, they sang about nostalgia to their teenage and adolescent audiences. Why else would “Yesterday” become such a monster hit?

Time magazine compared the Sergeant Pepper album to the works of Brahms and Schubert. Their “Let It Be” is sung as a hymn in churches worldwide. Such superb music! While coming to grips with their huge global presence, the Fab Four continued to make great music that their fans had to admit was getting better all the time. Paul’s new album renews my faith in The Beatles while he is saying “don’t live in the past.”

The Beatles phenomenon is inexplicable. Especially if you listen to what they have said since the split…that the brand was a burden. They stopped public performances and retreated into the studio on London’s Abbey Road to produce path-breaking music. They had no idea of the impact they would make all over the world. Their music will forever remain the sound of a changing world, milestones in our journey from the teens to adulthood.

Forty-five years later, The Beatles story is told; all we have is memories and, as Paul says, the memory is almost full.

from daily news and analysis july 25 2007


Father's Day 2007

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Will they still need me? 

New York: “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 service in memoriam of 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, “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 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.

from daily news and analysis, june 27 2007

Victory in Vienna

-->Strengthening the Rule of Law
On September 6, 2008 the Vienna-based Nuclear Suppliers Group, a consortium of 45 countries that seeks to control international trade in nuclear materials, technology and equipment, issued a “clean waiver” that exempted India from its own denial regime. The effort was spearheaded by the United States government and supported by most of the original seven members of the NSG.
Where the global community rose to admirable heights to transcend its domestic political concerns, in India, the saffron and red opponents of the deal plumbed new depths of chicanery. Instead of closing ranks with the government, they dug in their heels and refused to acknowledge the importance of the NSG waiver and the potential it offers to transform India’s relationship with and standing in the global mainstream.

The intemperate response from the two opposition parties betrayed a poor understanding of the nature of democracy. The government won a confidence vote in Parliament, signaling it had majority political support for the deal; it went on to get its safeguards plan approved by the International Atomic Energy Agency and then finally won the confidence of NSG with its assertion that it was against proliferation and a nuclear arms race.

Having tried every trick in the book to stall the deal, the opposition simply failed. They must acknowledge that government won both domestic and international political support. Now it’s time, as opponents do in a democracy, to shake hands and present a united face to the world.

Never mind what happens in specific sectors, the Indo-US deal is a strategic move that will help transform the chalta hai economy. We will engage in a big way as a mature power with the big boys and therefore learn that we must take ourselves seriously. We cannot say one thing and do something else. In that sense, the Indo-US agreement takes Manmohan Singh’s reforms of 1991 to a new level. We will have to play by the rules and not hide behind political barriers as we have done at Doha in the WTO.

As it turns out, the business sector is already at it. For all the companies they have bought overseas and for all the foreign investment they have attracted, business leaders have understood the seriousness of contracts, intellectual property rights and the need for professional management. As such they have been the vanguard. The Indo-US deal simply ensures that government will follow with accountability and transparency.

The only hurdles that remain are the opposition parties. The Left is an ideological dinosaur that opposes the deal because of its irrational anti-American mindset and, as it now has become clear, it is China’s cat paw. They have been consigned, as elsewhere, to the dustbin of history. In the end, the Vienna waiver included the Soviet Union and China as well as the self righteous little countries like Switzerland, Austria, New Zealand and Ireland.

When it comes to the BJP’s protests, we should remember that the whole idea of the NSG waiver was to allow India the opportunity to do civilian nuclear commerce with the world. There is nothing in the agreement that talks about nuclear tests. The fact is the UPA government got the waiver in spite of the BJP’s ill-advised 1998 nuclear tests. The NSG waiver is a palliative against the hostile international reaction to the 1998 episode. We can test but we must be prepared for the global reaction. On the other hand, this government is much more mature than the insecure regimes of Indira Gandhi in 1974 and Atal Behari Vajpayee in 1998.

If you analyze it further, the BJP’s 1998 tests provoked a tit-for-tat reaction from Pakistan and as such, nullified the huge conventional military and economic superiority that India had vis-à-vis Islamabad. The Indo-US deal restores that advantage for India. The covert support that China provided for Pakistan’s nuclear program is well known. Islamabad remains a pariah, especially given the private A Q Khan network of nuclear proliferation.

It is no wonder that the Left opposed the deal tooth and nail. When it became clear that Karat and company failed, their Chinese patrons resorted to subterfuge in Vienna and when all was lost, absented themselves from the final session of the NSG.

A major learning from the Vienna consensus is that the Chinese could not stand up to the force of the world’s great powers, the US, Russia, France, Britain and Germany and failed to scuttle the deal in Vienna. That should be a sobering thought for the Left. As for the BJP, their loud protest that the government has sold out India’s strategic interest has simply drawn derision and disbelief. Instead of projecting itself as a viable right-of-center alternative to the Congress, the BJP has succeeded in showing itself up as an immature loser.

That’s all history now, though champions of the infantile Left and the immature BJP in the media and in the academy are still yelling and screaming. The deal is done. India can look forward to the fruits and the obligations of being accepted into the global mainstream. The rule of law will be strengthened. And if the saffron and red opposition acknowledge defeat and draw the right lessons, democratic traditions could also be strengthened.

The Acrid Stench of Death

Grief Eases, the Smell Lingers

On September 21, my mother would have turned 86. She died five months ago. But lest anyone thinks this another obituary, I want to make it perfectly clear that it is not. Rather I want to talk about the phenomenon of death.

To begin with, there’s no escaping it. We are all on some supernatural death row from the minute we are born. Certainly, we give our lives meaning. We have childhood, adolescence, youth, middle age and old age. We do amazing things: we build nations, machines, welfare systems, philanthropic organizations; we do astounding research in medicine, physics, chemistry; we sing songs, play guitar and make it snappy; we write symphonies and operas, novels, poetry, even columns like this one. It is our only shot at immortality. Buried, burned or otherwise disposed off, our mortal coil is just that: mortal. Remember the root of the word is Latin for death.

It’s not my intent to be a Woody Allen and obsess about death. We don’t need that because the fear of death is programmed into our DNA. We eat healthy, we work out, and we give up cigarettes, booze and the libertine lifestyle. All in the hope we get a few years more on this planet. That desire drives people who live in sylvan estates or in deplorable slums; the investment banker who lives on 95th and Fifth in Manhattan as well the tribal in basic Africa; the person on a luxury yacht in the Mediterranean or the desperate immigrant stowing away on a cargo ship.

Nobody told me the only certainty in life is death for all the years I spent is respectable educational institutions. Everything was a mumbo-jumbo in equal parts religion and superstition. In school, we accepted an unstated belief in God advocated by the Jesuits; university life was guided by the Calvinist belief in the salvation of hard work, burning the midnight oil. After that, a job was the Holy Grail. You had find one, keep it and rise through the ranks. Better homes, nicer cars, club memberships, five-star hotels, business-class travel and various other diversions took you mind off from the inevitability of death.

So we build the tangled web of ambition and desire to divert our minds, stuck as we are this wonderful death row called life. Be it clearly stated I am not a dark and foreboding person; quite to the contrary I have a sunny disposition best expressed in the Louis Armstrong song, What a Wonderful World. Satchmo sang the song in 1967, at a time when protest rock began belting out its dark and nihilistic message. The song was written for him by the legendary jazz impresario Bob Thiele. Its opening lyrics went like this:

I see trees of green, red roses too
See them bloom for me and you
And I think to myself what a wonderful world
I see skies of blue, and clouds of white
The bright blessed day, the dark sacred night
And I think to myself what a wonderful world

And indeed we enjoy this world: springtime in Chicago, autumn in New England, a night in Manhattan, a drive on Pacific Coast Highway from San Francisco to Los Angeles, (corny though it sounds) an evening in Paris, a drive through the English and French countryside, a Beatles song, an Ellington tune or some good old Hindi songs by Rafi, Kishore, Mukesh or Geeta Dutt; even mundane experiences like a drink at the Air Force station in Ayanagar near the Delhi-Gurgaon border, dinner with friends in Bandra, a singsong at our house with friends, a great movie, a good concert, an absorbing play, a stirring opera. And for many of us, the satisfaction of work and the concomitant rewards, both spiritual and material.

My personal preference remains Goa in the Monsoon. Sure there are trees of green and blooming flowers. But the skies are grey; the clouds are black and ominous; the night is indeed sacred and dark with sheets of rain and gale force winds. Contemplating the violence of nature, I am reminded that we are mortals and we can be swept away by the sinister forces of nature.

These experiences define our lives. Otherwise there is a void, a few lonely years in a death watch cell. We seek love and solace. When we get that, we are immortal; others want more and they are Shakespeare, Blake, DaVinci, Einstein, Gaugin, Van Gogh, Mozart, Beethoven, Edison, Burke, Jefferson, Voltaire, Freud, Marx, Gates or any of the IT pioneers. People like them advance civilization. The rest of us just enjoy the fruits of their genius.

In the end, there is no greater comfort and joy than sharing a daily dinner table, a weekend lunch in the garden or Christmas with the family. These experiences run for a good 50 years or so in an individual’s life until the children ,both us and ours ,grow up and move away, sometimes physically but always emotionally. We enjoy it while we can and then contemplate the sunset years. Some of us are lucky to have friends to brighten up our evenings and weekends; and work to keep us busy through the day.

Into this cocoon of happiness that we build and protect, sometimes the reality of life creeps in. This happened when my mother died and left my father with us, Alzheimer’s and all. The grief has eased but I cannot get rid of the stench of death in my house. It is an acrid smell that no amount of Lysol, scented candles and room sprays can get rid off. It hangs in there, dismal and irreversible: a sinister prospect of what lies ahead. And in my father with his dementia, I can hear the ticking of the mortal clock.

copyright rajiv desai 2008

Goa Unplugged

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After All it’s Indian
So here we are in Ucassaim, Goa again. It’s been raining for the past three days and now there’s bright sunshine; warm humid days, cool starry nights. And I think to myself what a wonderful world. There are high-pitched songbirds in the morning; an irritating rooster with five-o’clock-alarm regularity; peacocks romantically a-braying at the prospect of snakes. The bread guy, the egg man and every other vendor has this little rooty-tooty horn that starts blowing from five in the morning to midday.
Our little village is, as such, a bucolic place. After three days of rain and a day of sunny blue skies, you can sit in the verandah and hear the water dripping from the trees at night. You get up from your armchair and look up at the million trillion stars in the sky to see if it’s clouded over again and it’s raining. And you realize with some impeccable insight that dripping water is the main event in Goa during the monsoon. Even after two days of sunny skies, the trees are still dripping; star-filled, moonlit nights notwithstanding, the drip-drop of the water from the trees never ceases. It is soothing, almost mesmerizing. The sound complements the sight of the starry, black-ink sky.
The wonder of this place is that is a feast of vision and sound but also of heavenly aromas of food: the overwhelming smell of feni, the acrid odor of Goa vinegar and the lustful noseful of seafood. Apart from the hedonistic cornucopia that is the very essence of Goa, there are other, more mundane aspects: good roads, polite drivers, great bars, good restaurants. For people like us, Goa is a discovery…a great view, a wonderful bar, a nice restaurant. Mostly, we wander through the towns, villages and beaches during the day and eat a simple dinner at home.
We love our little village. It is bucolic. Sadly, it is full of envious neighbors. We’ve tried to reach out to them but their world is so different. The amount of money we spend going back and forth from Delhi to Goa in a year surpasses their annual earnings. If we were foreigners, nobody would hassle us; if we were rich, we would have people to contain them. Being neither, we face the hostility of neighbors, who are nice to talk to; it is clear they have a hidden agenda. And they operate stealthily through the Panchayat.
In our case, they cannot complain in terms of religion or caste: my wife is a Goan Catholic; I am a Hindu Brahmin. Between Pereira (my wife’s maiden name) and Desai (also a Goan name), we easily blend in, especially because we live the local life. The problems our neighbors are causing us just for having our house are petty but stressful. One neighbor is a police constable; he earns less in a year than what we spend on airline tickets. Another neighbor started an ambitious project to build an additional floor but ran out of money; a third has cattle in his living quarters and the family is always at war, using loud voices and sometimes even physical combat.
All these years, we’ve ignored them, valuing the physical allure of the village. We’ve weaved that attraction into a pastoral experience. I was hoping to write poetry like William Blake, instead I am constrained to write a Marxist tract. Now that we are sprucing up the property for our daughter’s wedding in the next few months, we’ve had people coming out of the woodwork, objecting to walls; this, that and the other. All complaints go to the Panchayat; there are inspections, without any reference to the alleged transgressor.
In the past few weeks, we’ve had all manner of neighbors complaining about our plan to rebuild the garden walls. Forget sharing the cost, which we asked them to do and they refused, pleading poverty; they are of a completely negative frame of mind. One neighbor complained that we had encroached into his property; another complained, and he lives across the street, that the wall would block the breeze in his house. A third simply said we could not do it unless we built ten feet into our property, giving him the land for free.
We come to Goa to get away from it all. We stay at out second home, mind our own business and reach out to the locals. There is, however, such a simmering pot of envy that you can neither touch nor swallow for fear of burns. We have decided to fight it. Never mind religion or caste, the hostility has to do with socioeconomic differences. Though nowhere rich by global or even the new Indian standards, we nevertheless pay our caretaker more than the per capita income of the village…we probably spend more than that on dinner, when we go out.
That is the truth. But I see no reason why they would gang up on us, except because they believe they can wring a few thousand rupees out of us. Apart from the fact, I would not even part with a paisa, I am shocked that these people have such a skewed view of the world: the idea you can gang up to extract money from your better-off neighbor.
As my daughter says, “Man, Dad, they picked the wrong guy.” And indeed they did. My wife is from Goa and I am Goan by choice. We will fight them to the end of time and we will win for the same reason they seek to extort money from us. We have the resources to tie the Panchayat up in litigation for the next 10 years. Our taxes are 122 rupees a year because that’s really what residents can afford. I have no qualms in using my financial clout to screw their happiness.
On the other hand, despite the pathetic real estate taxes, the village is clean; everyone manages to dispose off their garbage and there are no smelly bins of the type you find in Delhi’s villages. We know because even in the capital we live surrounded by a village that immensely wealthier and depressingly dirtier.
So there we have it. We live in this bucolic village; we spend more money in a day than the local residents do in a month. But we will not give in to the egregious demands of our neighbors, who are simply hoping to make a buck by slowing our renovation.
I told members of the Panchayat, who came to visit us, that we will support the local orphanage (imagine: in this little impoverished community, there is one). But we have no time for envious and greedy neighbors. And we refuse to let their petty concerns spoil the time we spend in our little getaway that we call “Imagine.”

copyright rajiv desai 2008