Monday, April 22, 2013
Thursday, January 6, 2011
It Was Easy Because We Tried
Goa: Think about it for a minute. It’s New Year’s Eve at our house, Imagine. It’s easy if you try. And because we’re dreamers, our daughters and our entire extended family deigned to spend the evening with us. It was about 20 degrees Celsius officially but in the village where we live it was a little colder. Actually, we’ve rarely seen Goa as cold as to need sweaters. Anyway, we let it out and let it in with mirth and merriment; we made our world a little warmer. We shrugged off the cares that were upon our shoulder and sang and danced as though this eve was forever and a day.
We gave little thought that night to the busy years that had gone rushing by us because we still had our starry notions. And spending the end of the first decade of the millennium with the extended family was a treat that all in the world would devoutly wish. Though many who came were friends, the operative thing was they were all family: from New York, London, Zurich, Washington, Bombay, Ahmedabad and of course locally in Goa. It was a global celebration in a village that does not even appear in any map of this haven.
Arriving here on December 29 on an afternoon flight on our favorite IndiGo Airlines, we drove straight home and landed up at our favorite Cavala restaurant and rocked for many hours to the band Abracadabra into the wee hours of the night. There was this little girl Jessica, not even 10 years old, who jived with her father to the old time rock and roll. She was so good, I asked for her autograph, which she shyly wrote on a coaster. I will treasure forever despite the fact I may never see her again.
Tell me: how can you beat this anywhere else in nerve-wracking India? Is it any wonder that I believed it when a guy, who runs a beach shack in Morjim in the northern part of Goa, told me that nearly 250,000 people were expected in Goa on December 31? For the record, the population of Goa is just 1.5 million.
Goa lives and dies on tourism. This year because of the bad weather in Europe (few Americans come), many charter flights were canceled. The slack has been taken up by free-spending Indians. As such, the Goan tourism infrastructure that is geared to low-level European tourists is trying to adjust to domestic tourists, who demand what they can get in Thailand or Malaysia. Local demand will improve infrastructure in Goa. In the end, as in America, domestic demand makes for a more egalitarian economy.
Indian tourists are known worldwide to be big spenders. You now see in Goa the big Indian brands like Fabindia and hotels like Vivanta and Fortune that cater to the new middle class. They are better and more professional than the cramped little resorts that cater to British truck drivers in Calangute or the illegal purple, green and yellow resorts for Russian mafia and drug dealers in Morjim. In the end, the growth of high-end domestic tourism may be the savior of this gorgeous haven. Again for the record, there is no McDonald’s outlet in Goa.
The fear in Goa is that domestic tourists will bring the Indian sickness to their home, spitting paan, urinating in public, driving rashly and recklessly. Also the new thrust of domestic tourism is a more affluent class of tourists. The question remains: are hippies and backpackers, dubious Israelis and Russians better than high-end Indians from Delhi, Bombay and Bangalore?
Meanwhile, as I sit in my verandah outside my bedroom in our house, annoyed at the buzz of crickets and cicadas late at night, I realize it is all an academic wonder for now. These problems are all about the beaches and the “happening” strips. I’m happy to stay in my house and imagine ours is a haven; to be with family is very heaven.
Love, indeed, is all you need. And the love of family and friends is a treasure.
Copyright Rajiv Desai 2011
Thursday, December 17, 2009
Too Young To Die
On Sunday December 13, I sat with him, drinking coffee, listening to music and laughing about something I cannot now recall. With Rajiv, it was always that…laughter and joy. His mother walked in, put her hand on his head with an infinite sadness in her eyes. She said something to which he responded, “Mother, I have peritoneal cancer. My life expectancy is between eight to eleven months, of which four are already gone. So let’s not pretend I’m going to get better.”
I wanted to ask him how he felt being on death’s door. Was he scared? Did he sleep well? Wonder about the after life? But I held myself in check. “So,” I said to him, “do you read, watch television?” His eyes were bad, he said, plus he had attention deficit disorder.
We changed the subject and talked of nothing. I was just happy to spend a few hours with him on my trip to Ahmedabad. The previous day when I saw him, he told me to come the next morning at eleven. I showed up and he was taking a massage. “Ah, the good life,” I said. “Well, it feels good, the firm touch on my body,” he replied. He finished his massage, went to the bathroom and showed up in his den and ordered coffee for both of us.
Aside of the fact that his body was ravaged by the brutal assault of cancer, it felt like old times again. He kept asking if instead of coffee, I wanted to have a Black Russian. “Yo, it’s noon on a Sunday. The Lord frowns on people who drink on His morning, when He rests,” I told him.
A half hour later, I grasped his hand in the solidarity handshake. I wanted to hug him. I didn’t for two reasons: we had a waspish relationship that discouraged touchy-feely stuff; plus he looked so frail, I felt he would be physically uncomfortable if I hugged him. So the handshake was all. “See ya next month,’ I said in farewell. “Come back soon, it’s good to see you always,” he said. I left reluctantly and made a mental note to come back to visit mid-January.
On Monday, his wife Manini told me, he was going to the hospital for his chemotherapy and returning home only on Tuesday evening. I made a mental note to call Wednesday morning to see how he handled the latest bout of a cure that is worse than the disease. Early Wednesday at about 1.30 am, my phone rang. He was gone.
Our relationship was nearing 50 years. We were just twelve when we met in the ninth grade. A handsome lad, he made his presence felt, much to the consternation of our class teacher. Asked about his antecedents, he told the teacher he stood second in the eighth grade. “How many students in your class?” the teacher asked him firmly. “Well Sir, there were two,” he announced. The class broke into a spasm of laughter.
Later during the lunch break I sought him out and complimented him on his sense of humor. I also warned him the teacher could make his life miserable for making a fool of him. “True,” he said, “but he will also find out that my father is the education director for the government of Gujarat. That should give him pause.”
Since that day of June 1962, we became good friends. We discovered the Beatles together and Helen Shapiro and the Jarmels and the Cascades of “Rhythm of the Rain” fame. We navigated P G Wodehouse and James Hadley Chase and let our pre-teen hormones run riot, panting after any woman or schoolgirl who merely looked in our direction. Mostly, we built a world of our own, far removed from the moffusil sophistication of Ahmedabad.
Despite his friendship, I hated it in Ahmedabad. I wanted to leave home and after we finished the tenth grade, I left to go back to Bombay. We met subsequently during the holidays and we met again on the campus of Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda. We lived in the same dorm but plowed different furrows; him in Commerce, me in Engineering. I was put off by Baroda in the first few days and decided I would quit and return to Bombay. As I lugged my bag to the railway station, I bumped into him.
“Hello, where are you off to?”
“I’ve had it with this place. I’m going back to Bombay.”
“Don’t be stupid,” he admonished me and grabbed my bag and steered me back to the dorm. He came and sat with me in my room and then told me to get dressed. “I’m gonna show you the magic of Baroda.” I went with him meekly that evening. We walked to the women’s campus where he introduced me to his cousin Sharda and her friends. From that moment, I never looked back and made Baroda my home.
Over the years we drifted apart. He finished college and went to the Bajaj Institute of Management for an MBA. I stuck around in Baroda to finish my course and then escaped to America. We stayed in touch and I made it a point to see him each time I visited India. He visited me too in Chicago. Our friendship survived the test of time and distance. After I relocated to India in the late 1980s, I visited Ahmedabad frequently to visit with my parents and my in-laws. An evening with him was always on top of my agenda.
Now he’s gone. And the Clapton song comes to mind:
Would you know my name
If I saw you in heaven
Will it be the same
If I saw you in heaven
That’s the tragedy. “Beyond the door,” the place that Clapton sang about, is a whole new game. I wonder: is there a ninth grade there, where we can start all over again?
Copyright Rajiv Desai 2009
Tuesday, October 13, 2009
When I lived in Ahmedabad, the Sabarmati held no water. Its banks were slum-ridden. In the middle, you had these wonderful sights of people drying their colorful clothes and donkeys laden with sand to fuel the furious building activity on the west side of the river. Every now and then, the river would become flooded as the barrages upstream released water in the monsoon. By and large though, the river ran dry and the many bridges across it seemed pointless.
All that changed in May 1997. The Sabarmati Riverfront Development Corporation was set up under the stewardship of then chief minister Shankarsinh Vaghela to develop a plan for the riverfront. Twelve years later, Vaghela’s dream is taking shape. The river is full now, fed by the water of the Narmada Dam. When the project is completed, Ahmedabad will join Goa’s capital city Panjim as the only other riverside city in India to develop its waterfront.
The riverfront development in Ahmedabad is a huge and sophisticated urban renewal project. When it is complete, it will transform this city that is already fond of the good life. Traditionally known for its parsimonious ways, Ahmedabad has changed over the years to become possibly the most global city in India; not because of multinational firms as in Gurgaon but mostly because it has a huge connection to the US, where many of its denizens reside. This least Western city in India is curiously its most American city.
As such, Ahmedabad is truly egalitarian. On a recent flight from Bombay, I bumped into my friend Sanjay Lalbhai, scion of the city’s illustrious Lalbhai family and the head of Arvind Mills, traveling with me on an all-cattle-class Jet Konnect flight. His family is, among other things, a benefactor of the city’s famed Indian Institute of Management and the renowned CEPT University.
In an India of new and in-your-face wealth, Sanjay remains an icon of understated old wealth: unassuming and courteous, wedded to larger development causes such as higher education. He does this not as part of some PR-driven corporate social responsibility program; he is convinced, like his forebears, that a publicly-traded corporation has a duty to the community.
People like Sanjay and a relatively enlightened bureaucracy have transformed Ahmedabad from a moffusil place into India’s most dynamic city: its new Bus Rapid Transit System makes its Delhi counterpart look like a third-world system; the city’s airport, roads and its smooth power supply make it closer to global standards than any other city in India.
Historically, the laughing stock of India’s western provinces, Ahmedabad today is the face of new India. Never mind Bombay, people commended even Surat, Baroda and Poona over Ahmedabad. But the city will have the last laugh. It is set to emerge, with its mixture of schlock and exquisite architecture, superb infrastructure and thriving consumerism, as India’s premier city in the 21st century.
This does not mean that Ahmedabad is suddenly a pretty city; far from it. Flat, featureless and dusty, it grew privately. Builders from the north transformed this once genteel city into a treeless monstrosity of ugly multistory buildings. Over the years, conscientious civic authorities decided to take the city back. So you have this unusual combination of ugly private buildings, superb public architecture and now, sophisticated public spaces with a well-designed bus rapid transit corridor and a cleverly designed ring road with flyovers that work.
The expressway that links Ahmedabad to Baroda is a marvelous piece of road engineering that makes the Delhi-Gurgaon highway look like a country road in Burkina Faso. It runs about 100 kilometers, a distance that can be traversed in 55 minutes. The city’s Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel airport makes the new terminal in Delhi look like a provincial airport in some remote African country. The city is abuzz with new and lasting solutions to urban problems. They have no power cuts, a brand new water supply and sewerage system and piped cooking gas.
On the other hand, Ahmedabad remains among the most polluted cities in India. There is no getting away from the ugly commercial and private buildings. Its climate has to rank among the worst in India, thanks largely to the absence of trees and greenery.
Already, though, with water in the river, you can feel the climate is changing for the better. The vastly improved and well thought out infrastructure is bringing pride back to the city. As such, this maggot of a city is about to be transformed into a butterfly, albeit with ugly wings.
Thursday, August 21, 2008
An Obituary for My Mother
My Mom was difficult to love; she had a way with guilt. Whenever she came with my Dad to visit us in
Four months ago, when she died holding hands with me, I felt bereft. I didn’t cry or anything but just felt a deep gash in my heart. For some reason, we believe mothers are immortal and they will always be there to remind you of your checkered youth and then, after they have layered you with guilt, to comfort you. When you come to think of it, they are immortal because everyday of your life something happens to remind you of your mother. In many ways, grief is important; it helps you come to terms with the loss.
Sadly thus, my grief has remained bottled up in some obscure corner of my mind. I could become a psycho like Anthony Perkins in the Hitchcock movie of the same name and end up as a mass murderer or a suicide bomber. No, let me hasten to add, it’s not about to happen. The point is it’s important to express grief and while I have a hugely supportive family, I have no way to commiserate with my Dad. As such, we are the principals and yet we can’t share the emotions of the loss.
Apart from the dementia, my Dad is a fairly healthy fellow with no aches and pains and a zest for life. When he turned 75, he told my daughters he still had at least 25 years to go. Amazingly, he’s more than half the way there. He just needs 12 more for his century. Even today, in a state of dementia, he tells us he did well at school, was highly respected in his job and exercised relentlessly, so there’s no reason why he should not live to be a hundred.
He now lives with us. He is doubly troubled: dementia as well as a the dysfunction of a displaced person. We brought him with my mother from their home in Ahmedabad in March this year. My mother died and he has no way to go back to his comfortable life in the house he's lived in since the 1960s. He is unsettled and still lives out of a suitcase. We just have to deal with it and can only hope he stays independently fit.
I’ve never been big on yoga and Hinduism. But if ever there was a Karmayogi contest, please welcome my Dad to the Hall of Fame.
copyright rajiv desai 2008
Tuesday, July 29, 2008
A Disturbed Weekend in Kasauli
Our friends Yuri and Rupa have a place just outside Kasauli, a civilized mountain oasis on the way to Simla. I call their retreat “
If ever there was generational bonding, this was it. Yuri, now a growing Bollywood star, is a former IAF fighter pilot, who was chosen to be a part of
When you put this accomplished lot together in the hills, walking in the clouds and wearing sweaters and shawls in July, you have the makings of an enjoyable weekend, dripped in nostalgia. Especially because Gautam and Yuri are also rock stars, who, like the cult band of the 1960s, Traffic, can “sing a song, play guitar, make it snappy.” So we sat in the bar of “
Even as we enjoyed conversations and music, we learned over the weekend about the bomb blasts in
Nevertheless, it cast a pall over the gathering. We wondered what could possibly motivate people to rain death and mayhem on innocent people? I can understand driven psychos like Prabhakaran’s LTTE in
What is clearly beyond reason is the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in
Politics apart, these terrorist blasts have outlined in stark relief the sheer incompetence of the government. It is not about the BJP or the Congress; the central and state government agencies are simply inept and stupid, what a good banker friend of mine calls IAS. These agencies, whether RAW or IB or CBI, have been unable to bring anyone to book, starting with the bombings in
“The world has decided we should be a global player,” Prime Minister Manmohan Singh once told me. But the world simply has no idea that the Indian government is in held in thrall by corrupt politicians and wily bureaucrats.
So we have the unseemly spectacle of L K Advani, in the midst of this terrorist mayhem, asking the Speaker of Parliament to release a clandestine video that ostensibly shows a cash for votes transaction. No one, including the Speaker, bought the BJP’s wild allegation. In fact, the Speaker is reported to have read Advani the riot act, expressing grave displeasure at the flagrant violation of parliamentary norms.
Advani was referring to an alleged monetary offer made by the government’s supporters to induce legislators to vote for the UPA in the confidence vote in Parliament. What’s even worse, despite enjoying the exalted status of opposition leader, Advani allowed, nay encouraged, these dubious players to enact the cash drama in Parliament.
My personal view is that Advani is the most corrosive politician in
How can Advani focus on the so-called sting operation that members of his party conducted during the vote of confidence? More than 50 people have died in the terrorist attack in Gujarat (which Advani represents in the Lok Sabha) and Karnataka, both states run by the BJP. Shouldn’t he be asking questions of the BJP chief ministers there as to how this happened? He clearly has come unhinged by the government's convincing win on the floor of the house.
Where he should stand shoulder to shoulder with the central government, urging his party chief ministers to move quickly to arrest the perpetrators, Advani has shown he has the mentality of a municipal councilman. As such, he will continue in his cynically graceless manner to yell and scream from the margins to which he has relegated his party. Under the burden of his ambition, the BJP, which could be a useful right of center alternative in the political mainstream, has been reduced to a rump of naysayers and whiners.
Meanwhile back in Kasauli, we agreed that politicians like Advani would naturally draw an extreme response from Islamist formations like the “Indian Mujaheedin,” who have claimed responsibility for the blasts. Advani bashes on relentlessly: sponsoring foolish resolutions to oppose the government's plans to speed up reforms; egging on the egregious Sushma Swaraj in her wild allegations about the blasts; forgetting his own dismal record as home minister. It's time for him to adopt a vow of silence and maintain it for the remainder of this government's term.
Saturday, May 3, 2008
Coping with Alzheimer’s
It’s been less than a fortnight since my mother died. In the interim, my 87-year old father has spent an unsettled time. In the pink of health, he nevertheless suffers from Alzheimer’s disease. His brain cannot deal with current affairs and causes him to go rambling into the past. He remembers things from the 1950s and 1960s and earlier but when it comes to the present, he is all at sea.
For partly selfish reasons, we brought him to our house in
“Very nice…just like the old days,” he kept repeating. He was struck by the waves breaking on the beach, the lights, and the music. “This is wonderful,” he said over and over again as we finally dragged ourselves away from St Anthony’s Bar and Restaurant at 10 pm. I was beside myself with joy. In the days after my mother’s death, he had drifted, anchorless without his constant companion; like Keats' knight: “alone and palely loitering.”
Now that he lives with us, I think we can light up his life with experiences he has never had in his austere existence. His only interest was travel and so the
The next day we took him to a supermarket to buy him toiletries. I have always known him to be a frugal, even parsimonious man. He saves things rather than use them. A few months ago at his house in Ahmedabad, I found in his closet unused bottles of after shave lotion and several shirts I had presented him nearly 15 years ago. After we reached our home in
He was delighted to receive them and kept rummaging in the bag and looking at his new things through the car journey back home. Promptly, he squirreled them away into his suitcase. Knowing his abstemious mindset, I threw away all his past due date toiletries. The next morning and I don't know how, he retrieved his old shaving razor from the waste basket. However, my hope stayed kindled in that he has started using his new stuff; it is a minor victory in my battle to change his ways.
I am no psychiatrist but I feel that as a man alone now, he has a chance to experience new things, especially ease and choice that he long denied himself. My belief is that the new lifestyle might slow down his steady and inevitable mental decline. Nobody really understands Alzheimer’s. There have been many attempts to research and explain the disease in genetic and medical terms. In my layman’s view, it is about individuals, who have been misfits and therefore turned to simplistic views about life: their definitions of success and their existential happenstance.
The late Ronald Reagan is a classic example. He started out as an actor, never succeeded, got into screen politics, waltzed into the position of the governor of America’s golden state, California and went on to become a two-term occupant of the White House. For all the mythmaking, Reagan was never really cut out for the job and only acted the part…and that too in a B-grade performance. On his watch, certain earth-shaking events took place, primarily the implosion of the Whatever Reagan did, he slipped into the personal hell of Alzheimer’s. My view is that his simplistic, black-and-white view of the world left no room for critical assessments. I can see the same happening to my father. He told my wife, “I don’t read because I did all the reading that was needed to top all my exams. Why should I clutter up my mind with useless things?” To add to that, he had no friends, no interests: literature or music or art or theater or even television, cricket and cinema. Alzheimer’s came later; his blankness dates back nearly 40 years, which is 10 years before he retired from his job as a senior government official.
Whatever Reagan did, he slipped into the personal hell of Alzheimer’s. My view is that his simplistic, black-and-white view of the world left no room for critical assessments. I can see the same happening to my father. He told my wife, “I don’t read because I did all the reading that was needed to top all my exams. Why should I clutter up my mind with useless things?” To add to that, he had no friends, no interests: literature or music or art or theater or even television, cricket and cinema. Alzheimer’s came later; his blankness dates back nearly 40 years, which is 10 years before he retired from his job as a senior government official.
The biggest tragedy in dealing with my father is we have to forget my mother. Already, he is certain that the fuss and the funeral had to do with his mother, who died 42 years ago, when he was just 45. He has no remembrance; at least not that is publicly expressed that his wife is gone, just 20 days short of their 60th wedding anniversary.
In the 12 days since my mother went away, I have grown to be the 59 years that I am. Until April 21, I felt I was just 19.
copyright rajiv desai 2008