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Showing posts with label america. Show all posts
Showing posts with label america. Show all posts

Saturday, September 1, 2012

The splintered social contract

I wrote this piece in 2007. Thought I'd re-circulate it because to me it still seems relevant. I've edited it.

In September 1897, an eight-year-old girl in New York City, Virginia O’Hanlon, wrote a letter to the editor of The New York Sun. She wanted to know if there was a Santa Claus.
The letter drew a response from Francis Church, a lead editorial writer for the paper.
Church’s editorial, Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus, is widely regarded by students of journalism as perhaps the most famous edit ever written in America; it was the subject of a film starring Charles Bronson as Church.
Writing about the “skepticism of skeptical age”, Church reassured his interlocutor that Santa Claus did exist: “He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy...”
As a graduate student specialising in editorial writing, I can remember virtually memorising Church’s words and hoping that some day mine would have such meaning. With Christmas upon us, the edit came to mind.
What happened to wide-eyed innocence? The question is relevant in India today, where cynicism and guile have hardened hearts all across the nation.
Humanism and compassion are stored on the highest, most inaccessible shelves of values.
Hard-bitten people have emerged as leaders in business, politics, education, entertainment and media. They hold sway over the national discourse.
Intent on getting ahead, they push and shove, scream and shout, lie and cheat. It’s about accumulation of power and wealth: the worst form of capitalism, without the moral anchor that the European Enlightenment provided in the West.
In 21st century India, while the economy booms, the social contract is splintered by divisive caste and communal agendas raised by power-hungry politicians and money-grubbing bureaucrats, not to mention hard-boiled industrialists.
Such Dickensian characters as the Artful Dodger, the scoundrel who dodges responsibility for the consequences of his actions, and Ebenezer Scrooge, the killjoy who has come to symbolise a lack of charity, are emulated; gentleness, guilelessness and similar values of what the editorial writer Church called “eternal light” are discounted, even scorned.
It is almost as if existence is a zero-sum game in which victory is never sweeter unless it’s at the cost of someone else.
This mindset has a deep and lasting influence on public affairs. The individual, corporate and political values that flow from such thinking eschew the larger cause, the public good, the common weal.
Conflict is the central theme and the media seem to wallow in it. Celebrities, bureaucrats, companies and political parties are featured like gladiators of ancient Rome, while bloodthirsty citizens watch from the coliseum stands.
In this sport, only these groups count: the players and the media..
Beyond that there is filth, disease, poverty and ignorance that provide compelling evidence of the failure of governance.
Given such lopsided public priorities, there are garish malls, office buildings and apartment houses rising from the middle of a rubble strewn landscape.
Everywhere there is confusion: badly designed roads, unmanageable traffic, overburdened public transport, ill-equipped public hospitals and stressed out citizens who contract the diseases of wealth such as coronary heart disease and diabetes without the requisite bank balances to pay for their treatment; never mind those poor people who die of easily treatable diseases like malaria and diarrhea.
As the twelwth year of the millennium recedes into history, it is clear that that a Las Vegas bonanza style seems to have overtaken the practice of public affairs.
Public policy must be rescued from the roulette tables and the slot machines of zero-sum thinking.
Winning and losing; all manner of one-upmanship and conflict, true, are  major drivers of history, to be sure.  Without a social contract, India is a victim of the Las Vegas approach that promotes short-term thinking when what is sorely needed is a long term vision to bridge the gap between the rich and the poor; to give some hope to the mess of villages, towns and cities that are hellholes.
Let me hasten to add that I am not advocating a return to the days of central planning when deadly serious bureaucrats focused on the long term objective of peace on earth even as the neighbourhood fell apart.
This article appeared on DNA website on December 18, 2007

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Bombay Journal 3

Street of Dreams

On a recent swing through Bombay, I came face-to-face with my past. First, on the way to the St Xavier’s College campus to meet an old friend, I passed the Raj Mahal restaurant on Kalbadevi Road. My mother took me there one day in 1956, June 8, when I was admitted to the nearby and much coveted St Xavier’s High School. As we drove past it, I could almost taste the sense of accomplishment and the masala dosa and sweet lassi I had with my mother. Wind forward to 2012, as I drove past the restaurant; I was agog to see it:  It is still there, middle class and all, 56 years later!

On the way back north, the chauffeur took me past Victoria Terminus (now perforce called CST because of the thugs who run Bombay) onto the elevated road that takes you past Crawford Market (the thugs have renamed it Mahatma Phule Market) and Mohammed Ali Road, past the JJ Hospital and got off at Victoria Garden Road and into Byculla Bridge, a once-genteel neighborhood where I grew up in the shadow of Christ Church School.

We drove through Christ Church Lane, where I lived as a pre-teen and commuted on the weekend with friends to our family home in Juhu Beach to enjoy the Goa-like ambience. The Lane was an eye opener. Living there, I came to appreciate the sheer cultural diversity of India: living among Goans and Anglo-Indians, Bohras and Jews, Muslims and Parsis; I also learned how it felt to belong to a minority: Hindu, Gujarati, vegetarian.

Driving through Christ Church Lane, I saw that it is not as wide as I imagined.  With cars parked on both sides, it was a bit of a struggle driving through. The buildings of my childhood: Court Royal, Lobo Mansion, Blue Haven and what have you are still there; they look somewhat weatherworn. Around the corner on Victoria Garden Road, the storefront Linnet Tailor still stands after all these years. This was the establishment a little boy badgered for delivery of his clothes within 24 hours of being measured up.

It was like a riding in a time machine. This pre-teen boy was leading me through this street of dreams. I was a visitor from the future being led by the little boy through the clouds of a past that shaped my worldview: to nurture diversity, to embrace cosmopolitanism.

My pre-teen guide from the past reminded me that every evening, hormonal young teenagers strutted through the Lane; eyeing the gorgeous “dames” the Lane was famous for. There was a guy, spitting image of Elvis, who would strut and fret his hour upon the Lane, with girls swooning all over him. In my mind’s eye, I caught a glimpse of a little boy, in his bathroom, wetting his hair trying to swirl up the trademark Elvis pompadour.

The traveler from the future could envision also the same little boy, his companion on the journey through time: perched dreamily in his balcony, listening to the troubadour family that came to sing Friday nights. The song that touched him was Tony Brent’s “Little Serenade” and the green-eyed teenage daughter. “Just a little street down in Portofino,” they sang. An Anglo-Indian, Brent grew up and lived in an apartment house on the tree-shaded Spence Road, just south of the Lane. Though he left India for England a decade before I lived there, he was a legend and his songs were fiercely popular.

In Christ Church Lane those days, there was a sense of urbane sophistication and above all, a feeling there could be no better place than this Bombay. As a pre-teen, the little boy fantasized about cricket but also about football and athletics, Hollywood films, Goa and Gorai. He was, however, always on the margins; restricted in diet and Gujarati conservatism.

These memories surfaced as I drove through Christ Church Lane, the venue of my renaissance. It was as if the little boy from the 1950s took me by my hand and helped me relive a time when my mind opened up. The kid got me all emotional; he reminded me of its beautiful girls, its rock and roll, and its diversity.

In America, in the early 1970s, I used to identify with a monster-hit television show called “Happy Days.”  My friend David Swanson was always befuddled. “How does that work?” he asked me. “It depicts a typical American suburban experience.” It was difficult for me to explain. “Just believe it; for me, the show works because it reminds me of Christ Church Lane,” I would tell him. It wasn’t just the incipient rock-and-roll music of the time but also a shared middle class heritage of work and achievement, play and leisure.

The trouble with memories in India is that the present-day situation mostly always turns out to be grim, nothing like what you remember. In America, nostalgia is treasured and old things are not just preserved but made better. In 2008, citizens of Milwaukee gathered to applaud the unveiling of the bust of “Fonzie,” an unforgettable character in “Happy Days,” which was based in the city’s golden suburbs of the 1950s. Wouldn't it be wonderful if residents of Byculla Bridge did the same for Tony Brent?

And so I drove through the street of dreams with the little kid, who liked to sing in his tuneless monotone Elvis’ “Jailhouse Rock,” pant after the gorgeous girls in the Lane and listen to “Binaca Geet Mala” with its Hindi film tunes in addition to the Binaca “Hit Parade.”  Those pre-Beatles-era songs still remain with me; I married a gorgeous Goan girl (who didn’t live in the Lane but hey, nobody’s perfect) and I troll the net to find the Binaca shows (no luck yet).

Soon we turned onto Clare Road (wonder what the thugs call it now?), west of the Lane. As the car got swallowed up in traffic headed north, the little kid disappeared into the haunting memories of Christ Church Lane and I returned to the dreary ordinariness of 21st century Bombay.

A version of this article appears on The Times of India website.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

American Life 10


New York: It was a jaw-dropping piece of news. Gabrielle Giffords, a young Democratic member of the House of Representatives from Tucson, Arizona was shot in the head by a crazed assassin in a parking lot as she did her regular meeting with her constituents on Saturday January 8.

The shooting shocked America. Since March 1981, when John W Hinckley Jr took a shot at Ronald Reagan, I can recall no other such event. The Reagan shooting precipitated a national debate on gun control; this latest one raised issues about the polarization in politics that took hold when George W Bush was president.

For me, the news harked back to the night of May 21 1991 when I got a call informing me that Rajiv Gandhi was killed in Sriperumbudur in the southern state of Madras. My heart went out to the family, friends and staff of Giffords.

Giffords’ immediate supporters probably feel today as I felt on that stormy night in May 1991: the dream was over; political violence has a way of putting paid to ideals. I worked with Rajiv for many years and was devastated at the news of his death.

When Rajiv was assassinated, I told an interviewer from The Times of India that he was killed because of the hate atmosphere that was created by his opponents in politics and in the media.

Amazingly, this was among the issues being debated 30 years later in America. In a television discussion on January 12, David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, told the host Charlie Rose that hate mongering is an important determinant of political assassinations. In his cool, scholastic way Remnick endorsed what I told the Times in a fit of emotion some two decades ago.

The Giffords shooting brought to mind the assassinations of Abraham Lincoln, Mohandas Gandhi, John Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi. Their opponents had launched a relentless and visceral hate campaign against them.

Among the many stories that emerged from the Giffords shooting, one was about Sarah Palin’s website on which she had marked targeted constituencies for her yet-unspoken campaign in 2012 with cross-hair targets and one of them was Giffords’ 8th congressional district in southern Arizona.

In the middle of the reasoned debate about how a polarized hate atmosphere can move deranged people to target public figures, Sarah Palin, the erstwhile Republican vice presidential candidate, the Narendra Modi of American politics, weighed in; she accused the media of “blood libel.”

In turn, her detractors pointed out that her phrase “blood libel” was anti-semitic. The phrase has been used since Biblical times to reinforce the fundamentalist Christian view that Jews are the killers of Jesus Christ. Like Gujarat's Modi, Palin lacks sophistication, preferring the use of propaganda to work up her constituents; like Modi, she uses insulting and intemperate words to score over her opponents.

A recent example of this was in her tweet: "So how's the hopey-changey thing working out for ya?"

Contrast Palin's tilt in the debate to the much anticipated speech that President Barack Obama gave after the shooting. Rising above the clamor, he said that political differences are real but should not be allowed to become the source of violence. He reached out to his opponents and asked for a compact of civility that would foreswear hate.

Watching television coverage and debates on the shooting of Congresswoman Giffords, I was struck by several things. One, the coverage was wall-to-wall. Two, there was a liberal slant to it in that most reporters and commentators pointed discreet fingers at the right-wing cable and radio mafia for hatemongering. Three, Sarah Palin got embroiled in it.

It’s much like what the Indian media do except the Americans did it in a sophisticated, understated and well-researched fashion. No screaming and shouting and rumor-mongering, just well-reasoned arguments.

Conversations on public affairs in India are sophomoric with opinions based on prejudice rather than facts; debates are in the nature of high school encounters; the discourse as a result is usually twisted and misses the point. Indeed, if America is a post-doctoral democracy, India is still to get into college.

Though it may be not the most politically correct thing to say, fingers can be pointed at Mohandas Gandhi’s jibe. Asked what he thought of Western civilization, he said, “It would be a good idea.”

In that one smug remark, Gandhi dismissed the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Enlightenment, movements that raised the West to unprecedented heights of prosperity and civility.

Consider 21st century India: people urinate and defecate in public; female children are suffocated at birth; brides are snuffed out for lack of dowry; there is still hunger (India ranks number 94 in the global hunger chart); most people live without water and sanitation; cities are slums and villages dens of inequity and filth.

The legacy of Gandhi’s flippant remark can be observed in the immaturity of public discourse in India. Serious issues are subverted in the flush of smug opinions.

Copyright Rajiv Desai 2011

Thursday, January 13, 2011

American Life 9

Let It Snow…

New York: Since yesterday, the weather service forecast, picked up in the local media, was a blizzard would dump up to 18 inches of snow on the city.

The last time a blizzard struck was over the Christmas holiday and left the city reeling under the devastating impact of more than two feet of the white stuff.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his city administration attracted a lot of criticism for the responsiveness of municipal agencies in the crisis.

That’s why, two weeks later, the mayor was upfront in the media, outlining plans to handle the upcoming snowfall. In the event, the blizzard turned out to be a non-story; it was nowhere in magnitude anywhere near the great Christmas whiteout.

Though some of the outlying boroughs like Long Island reported accumulations of up to two feet, Manhattan was spared the savagery.

Even so the mayor was out there, giving citizens a ball-by-ball account of the response by civic agencies early this morning.

He was out there, holding a press conference with his senior officials, urging citizens to lend a hand as the civic crews cleaned up the 8 to twelve inches of snow that fell.

As the day progressed and a sunny cold morning slipped into a cold, blustery and partly cloudy afternoon, the mayor’s efforts were given the thumbs up by citizens and the media.

It was an eye-opener for me; over the past couple of decades as a keen observer of the state of civic services in Delhi, I’ve been severely critical, dismissing all the main agencies as corrupt and inept.

Most of Delhi’s agencies are leaderless because in its wisdom the federal government, which is based there, created an incredibly complex chain of command.

Consequently, the agencies have had pretty much a field day over the past six decades; opaque and incompetent, they created neither civic services nor infrastructure; instead they feathered their own nests, appropriating funds and delivering nothing.

Since 1998, the capital has had a chief minister, a leader with a vision to grow Delhi into world-class city.

Despite the obstructive and corrupt bureaucrats who man the various civic agencies, Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit has managed to deliver significantly in terms of public goods; the mendacity of the city’s bureaucrats can be seen in the shoddy work and corners cut as a way of embezzling public funds.

These thoughts clouded my head as I watched with admiration the huge effort, both before and after the snowfall, by Mayor Bloomberg in New York City.

What’s the difference in the two situations, I asked myself; in the Delhi one, we have morally challenged officials and goal-oriented ones in New York?

The more I think about it though I am convinced that morality and ethics are at the root of the two different approaches of civic agencies in New York and Delhi.

Delhi’s civic authorities seem to treat their jobs as a way to enhance both their social standing and their bank accounts; their counterparts in New York City see their positions as a public trust and work to make things better for the citizens they serve.

It may sound simplistic and naïve but that is the essential difference between two worldviews and is manifest in the incredible difference in standards of civic services and infrastructure between New York and Delhi.

But there’s more to it than just the contrast between the two cities; the issue is about the fundamentally different approach to government in the US and in India.

In India, government has more to do with privilege and perks than public service; it offers the well connected an opportunity to garner position and wealth; in the US, citizens of position and wealth are inducted to public service.

To be sure, just as in India, there is corruption here too in America; difference is that crooked public servants here are by and large brought to book and jailed; in India, usually they go scot free and seek protection from the law by becoming members of Parliament or state assemblies or patients in hospitals.

The noticeable lack of “development” that hits you between the eyes when you land in India is a direct outcome of these two startlingly different views of government: in the US, the government seeks to empower citizens whereas in India, the government actually disenfranchises them.

For instance, over the past few decades, the Indian establishment has talked ceaselessly about “sustainable development” and actually turned it into a weapon against industrialization, urbanization and economic growth.

Meanwhile in recent years, restaurants in major American cities have promoted a “hundred mile menu” that involves sourcing ingredients from within that radius; this simple marketing strategy saw the rapid growth of sustainable farms across the country.

This recent development underlines the fundamental difference in government in the two democracies: between empowerment and disenfranchisement.

It’s a sobering train of thought on the eve of my departure to Delhi, India.

Copyright Rajiv Desai 2011

Monday, January 10, 2011

American Life 8

Obama’s Problem…

Chicago: It’s cold here, bracingly so. The high was minus five Celsius; late at night as I sit jet lagged on the computer, the mercury has dipped to minus 12 Celsius. With the wind chill, it feels like minus 20 Celsius. There’s a light dusting of snow on the ground and the place looks as pretty as a picture postcard. Tonight it’s going to be “four below,” that’s roughly minus 22 without the wind chill factor. **ck it’s cold!

I love the winter in Chicago. It’s a breeze to drive because all the roads are cleared almost instantaneously. On the Eisenhower expressway, the lanes are clear; I tell my friend, who’s driving us to this wonderful French restaurant, Chez Joel on Taylor Street, in the vicinity of the University of Illinois campus, that I’m convinced the city has placed heaters under the carriageway.

The atmosphere is crystal clear. We saw the lights of the city’s fabled skyline with no fog, smog or smoke refraction. It struck me that despite corruption and patronage, a city could be run and be beautiful as few other cities in the world. It is truly a winter wonderland. And the words of the famous Louis Armstrong song buzzed in my head: “What a wonderful world!”

Earlier that morning, I drove to an appointment on Cumberland Avenue, a major drag that connects the near western suburbs to the airport. This was my everyday drive when we moved to Chicago in the 1970s. It’s been almost 30 years since I’ve driven that route that leads from near west suburbs northwest to O’Hare.

When we moved to the city in the 1970s, we decided to stay in the near west suburban area that comprises Oak Park, River Forest and Forest Park. These were the first communities out of the reach of the Chicago City Council and as such were autonomous while retaining the character of the city. They were actually an extension of the city and had no cookie cutter developments or McMansions. River Forest was the wealthy one; Oak Park, affluent and aware; Forest Park, the poor cousin.

My office was about 10 miles northwest, near the fabled O’Hare airport, crossroads of the US, the busiest in the world and also, despite the traffic, the most laid back. To get to 7220 West Higgins, I had to drive up northwest on Cumberland Avenue. It was my drive everyday for two years until I got a job in downtown Chicago on Michigan Avenue.

At noon on January 7, I found myself heading northwest from River Forest, up Thatcher Avenue to Cumberland. I fell into a reverie; it was as if nothing had changed in 30 years. For the record, since I moved to a downtown job some 30 years ago, I just never took the route, using River Road to get to the airport instead. As I drove up Thatcher to the light and turned right on Cumberland, past the Elmwood Park cemetery, the sign was still there: “Drive Carefully, We Can Wait.”

Chicago is a city that changes, always for the better each year; but not Cumberland Avenue. As I drove up the street, I may as well have been driving in the 1970s. Part of the reason is that Cumberland cuts a straight path through protected woods. Just past Fullerton Avenue, you begin to find homes on the east side of the street. They were the same, except for the “For Sale” signs stuck on their postage stamp lawns.

“Foreclosures,” I thought to myself. The neighborhoods that line the northern portions of Cumberland are all blue-collar communities with families whose breadwinners worked in machine shops that dotted the northwest parts of Chicago. The people who live in River Grove, Elmwood Park and Norridge, largely blue-collar neighborhoods that straddle Cumberland Avenue are mostly Polish, Ukrainian and other eastern European immigrants.

While almost everything about Chicago has changed including the city itself and its close suburbs, these Cumberland Avenue communities have remained stagnant and are now declining. It’s almost as though the 21st century has bypassed them. I can say this with some certainty because I drove through them nearly 30 years ago and now driving through them, I found nothing changed.

In the event, I was jolted back to the present as my host and I drove east on Eisenhower Expressway to the city to dine in this fabulous restaurant. As I tucked into the streak, I thought about the challenges facing America and how to redeploy the work force.

Then I thought to myself: that’s Obama’s problem. He’s from Chicago, albeit from Hyde Park on the south side. He has to fix it. His former chief of staff, Rahm Emmanuel is running for mayor to replace Richard Daley, who has bowed out and whose family has run the Democratic Party in Chicago for nearly 50 years. The mayor’s younger brother William just got appointed White House chief of staff.

For the first time in half a century, there will be no Daley in Chicago’s Democratic Party dominated politics. It’s almost as though the Nehru-Gandhi family had given up control over the Congress Party in India. I contemplate, with some anxiety, the future of Chicago’s politics and its development in the second decade of the 21st century.

Copyright Rajiv Desai 2011

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Imagine there’s a Heaven

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

Monday, November 16, 2009

Seeing Through the Potemkin State

Perhaps it is about getting older. Or that the excitement has waned. Increasingly the prospect of arrival in India fills us with apprehension as the cab winds its inevitable way to JFK or Chicago’s O’Hare. For me, America is a cultural home: the food, the music, the clothes, the humor, the aesthetics, the very idiom of language is all comfortingly familiar. Driving is a pleasure; walking the streets a delight and everywhere smiles and hellos…well, maybe not that many in New York City! But it’s less about extolling America than dreading what lies in wait at Delhi or any other port of entry to India.

Within seconds of landing, the harsh reality hits you between the eyes. The airport is shoddy, grimy and smelly. To exit is to confront a menacing crowd of people, straining at the barricades: vast numbers of drivers pushing and shoving; swarms of noisy families come to receive their near and dear ones; and various other categories teeming around the crumbling arrival terminal. True, such crowds gather at arrival terminals everywhere in the world but at Indian airports it adds another dimension to the chaos that reigns supreme.

Step outside and it is quickly evident there is no system to smooth the way for arriving passengers. You are left on your own to dodge honking and swerving cars torturing the driveway; and everywhere, smoke and fumes and rubble.

However, if you are an anointed “VIP,” as India’s public servants are called, you are whisked away through a plush private terminal to a private parking lot and into your car, all within minutes. Public servants don’t even wait for their bags; there are flunkies to retrieve them and deliver them to your house along the VIP route into Lutyens Delhi of the smooth, wide, tree-lined boulevards with flowering rotaries, manicured parks and expansive villas.

In stark contrast, the taxpaying citizen has to endure subhuman conditions in the terminal and bump along cratered tracks that pass for roads and deal with seriously demented drivers who whiz through the non-VIP parts of the capital as if possessed by demons. It is apparent that you have landed in one of the world’s least developed countries: Incredible India!

You get angry at the rank disparity. In America, things work smoothly for ordinary citizens. Yes, the economy is flagging and people are finding it tough to get or hold on to jobs. But the cities and communities are pleasant and there is a heady rush of egalitarianism in the very air. The entire political and bureaucratic setup in America is geared single-mindedly to the welfare of citizens. The accent on public service is pronounced and evident.

In India, you can have a top job or a fortune as a businessman but unless you are in the VIP zone of the cities and towns, you may not have reliable electric power, adequate water supply and any sanitation at all. Those who can afford it make their private arrangements; the rest suffer. Just in recent days, when it rained consecutively for two days, the capital was submerged. Questioned, a VIP dismissed the water logging and the traffic jams as an act of nature, a result of the heavy rains; he seemed criminally unaware of the problems people faced getting around the city. In his Lutyens Delhi, there is no flooding, light traffic and your workplace is but a pleasant drive of a few minutes.

This disparate order makes the chaos of India not just irksome but menacing. It is as though the system milks the ordinary individual who has a job or business to provide for the VIP. The random but deadly civil disturbances that plague India are spontaneous expressions of civic anger against the system that barely makes room for the middle class, leave alone marginal groups.

In huge swathes of India, the most deprived people have fallen sway to Maoist ideology and have taken to violence. No political party, not the hydra-headed government agencies, not the self-righteous NGOs can control them. Such civil violence will increase in frequency and scope as more and more citizens begin to see the disparity: not just the gap between rich and poor but between the privileged and the rest.

In the past few years, the elite have bought into the notion that India is set to emerge as a world power. Nothing belies the claim so comprehensively than the question mark that hangs over the staging of the Commonwealth Games next year. The controversy has shown up the Potemkin state, a cheap cardboard cutout fashioned by bureaucrats and politicians to fool themselves into believing the world power fantasy.

You don’t have to look too hard to see beyond the Potemkin mirage: dysfunctional highways and airports; garbage strewn cities and hapless villages; deadly traffic and pervasive pollution; the poverty of civic values and the sheer indignity of the human condition.

The slogan “Incredible India!” cuts both ways: one, the Potemkin way that the government intended; two, it is incredible that a modern 21st century democracy with one of the fastest growing economies in the world is in such a shambles.

An edited version of this article appeared in The Times of India, November 16, 2009.

copyright Rajiv Desai 2009

Thursday, August 27, 2009

American Life 2

Chicago: The Livin’ is Easy

It’s summertime in this city of broad shoulders and the Grant Park Symphony is performing works by Mendelssohn, Schumann and Haydn in Millennium Park, a 25-acre park built on what were parking garages and railway yards when we lived there in the 1970s and 1980s. The Great Lawn that spreads in front of the stage in the Jay Pritzker Pavilion is swarming with people, nearly 10,000 of them, savoring a picnic dinner made mostly of local ingredients and sharing bottles of wine.

What a wonderful tableau of post modern life in America: a city that enhances your life beyond the income you earn, the house you live in, the schools your children go to, the stuff you buy and the social circles in which you live! Chicago has created wonderful public places for people to mingle, surely with their friends but also with people you would not normally meet. Though the word is politically charged in India, Chicago has as such developed “communal” spaces, where people of every hue can intermingle. It is as though Woodstock had a bath and a shave and switched from drugs to wine.

There was camaraderie in the air that evening. People seemed to revel in being denizens of this great city. Everyone smiled, nodded and enjoyed the communal experience. Sure there was huge mess of tourists from other more bland parts of the Midwest. They stuck out like sore thumbs, determined to enjoy the big city. On the other hand, there were locals with an air of entitlement. “This is our city and that’s the least we expect,” their demeanor seemed to say.

We think of Chicago as our hometown. It’s our daughters’ birthplace; the city where be bought our first house. Chicago is where, in the 1970s, we launched a community newspaper that still survives; the city where we created a family of friends who are still very much part of our lives; the city where my twin careers in public affairs and journalism got started. Our particular affinity for the city is ingrained within our souls in a way no resident of or visitor to the city can imagine.

Our many Indian friends in Chicago dream fondly about their Delhi, Bombay, Ahmedabad, Baroda, Hyderabad, Bangalore or the hundreds of little towns and villages they came from. They paint India in the rose-colored hues of nostalgia, never mind that their cities (and indeed all Indian cities) are hellholes. On the other hand, we live in India and look forward to the next visit to our Chicago that becomes nicer, more exciting with each year that passes.

My good friend Ashis Nandy, India's leading social psychologist,is a leading thinker, whose critiques of the modern development paradigm have won global applause. His reasoned view is development should be on a human scale. He speaks about an egalitarian ethos, an embrace of local culture and a social system in which people can live with dignity.

Unlike most scholars in India, Ashis is an open man, ready to consider new ideas and arguments. He is not, like most Indian intellectuals, de facto anti-American, though he may have problems with the capitalist ethic and its attendant consumer ethos. He is a post modern thinker who worries about unbridled economic growth and the concomitant destruction of traditional values. It is through his eyes that I recognize that America has gone post modern in its approach to development. Urban planners in Chicago especially but also in the rest of America have learned and implemented the values of self reliance and sustainable lifestyles.

While most of the public debate in India is about American imperialism (the Left) and American debauchery (the Right), Ashis is the kind of iconoclastic thinker who would look beyond stereotypes to appreciate the urban revolution that is underway in America. And Chicago is the pioneer. It builds skyscrapers and expressways but also parks and promenades. The humane scale is there for all to see; one children’s park on the city’s newly-developed East Side is paved with a soft, cork-like material to combat scraped knees and bruised elbows.

When we lived in Chicago in the 1970s and the 1980s, India was seen as a poverty-stricken, disease-ridden basket case. Today, it is regarded as a possible engine of world growth. The Indian community in America is lauded as an accomplished minority. Fact is, though, that as India modernizes with all the attendant problems, America is in a post modern state of mind. Nobody really cares how many highways India builds or the rise of its stock market or the rapidly expanding middle class. Question is, as Chicago poses, what have you done for the people lately?

What the Indian establishment should say in response is “Father, forgive me for I have sinned.” Without a proper confessional, India will continue to flounder in confused urban development and be strangled by a vicious rural power structure.

Such dark and dire thoughts occur to people like us who care about the India project: a great democracy and a vital economy that is challenged by corrupt and inept governance. Fact is India goes its own sloppy way and there is a palace guard of politicians, bureaucrats and well-off citizens who couldn’t care less. The rest of the citizenry is left to fend on its own. Just think, in affluent neighborhoods too in Delhi and all the cities, towns and villages in India, there is no water supply, sanitation or electric power; there are no decent roads, no decent schools, no jobs; only rapidly dwindling hope. At some point, the crises may become overwhelming.

India's stark and brutal conditions stand out even more sharply seen against the post modern West. Once again, it is being left behind just when it seemed poised to catch up.

Copyright Rajiv Desai 2009

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Cincinnati Journal

New Beginnings, Old Friendship

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright Rajiv Desai 2009