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Showing posts with label bombay. Show all posts
Showing posts with label bombay. Show all posts

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

In My Life
All These Places Have a Meaning…



The single dominant memory that I have of Alan Oscar (pictured above on the right) is of him sitting next to my bed, where I was confined with measles. He was my friend and neighbor in Court Royal, an airy old apartment house in Christ Church Lane in Bombay’s Byculla Bridge. It was the 1950s and our neighborhood was the happening place: gorgeous dames, strutting guys, great music, a mind-blowing diversity of middle-class cultures and above all, the green lung of Christ Church School, complete with trees, parks and a variety of birds from parrots on down.

Alan sat with me through my measles attack and made my convalescence bearable. For a lad of not even 10 summers, there could be no heavier sentence than to stay at home while his friends ran riot in the building and around the Lane, playing carefree, pre-teen games. Alan is six years older and was at the time a TEENAGER!  He became my lifeline as I tossed and itched in bed; the wise, mature, compassionate guy among our tight knot of friends in the Lane.

A tsunami of nostalgia whisked me back when Alan and I re-established contact and he sent me this picture. Christ Church Lane was a defining phase in my life after I left the rarefied precincts of Juhu Beach and plunged headlong into bustling, vivacious Bombay’s 8th arrondisement, Byculla Bridge. A celebration of India’s middle class diversity, Nehruvian-style, this wondrous place was the hope that all of India would burgeon to embrace different cultures and lifestyles with strong middle-class values of work and civic pride. 

Within days of leaving the Lane, I realized most of the rest of India was not like it nor headed in that direction. It also became apparent that cosmopolitan Bombay itself was slowly being transformed into the hapless Mumbai about that time. 

Ah…but that’s another story. Staying with life in the Lane is immensely more interesting because it is about relationships in youth between the unlikeliest of people. That these can be revived a full half-century later is a story that began for me in the mid-1980s when I had my high-school friends (St Xavier’s Bombay, Class of 1965) over to dinner at our house in Oak Park, an old, gracious suburb just west of Chicago.

My friends showed up on a hot July evening; many of them I knew since the fifth grade. The reunion turned out to be good fun but I have never met them again. And that’s largely because I didn’t keep up with them. Having had a taste for nostalgic reunion, when I next went to London, I tracked down my friend Aasif; hadn’t seen him since 1973. So nearly a decade later, I caught up with him. We remain the same good friends to this day: he lives in Goa and we meet every other month.

Having never been to Delhi, in 1981, on my first trip, I looked up Anurag Chowfla, a friend from my days at the Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda. In an amazing twist of fate, Anurag is now, family: my daughter married his nephew. Over the years, I also looked up Mark Warner, with whom Anurag and I shared the Shakespeare Society experience in Baroda.

In the same vein, I attended a much larger reunion of the St Xavier’s class of 1965 in January 2008. There I met, among others, my friend Lawrie Ferrao, whom I have known since the fifth grade. He is now Fr Lawrie, SJ and head of the Xavier Institute of Communications. We got along smoothly all over again and he agreed to bless my daughter’s wedding at our village church in Goa the following November.

Over the years, I sought out old friends and re-established contact that I still maintain. Every now and then, I hang out with another Baroda friend, Yogi Motwane, with whom I reconnected in the US…and other friends from the MSU engineering school. Last November, we had a  reunion that attracted other friends from afar: Venky Krishnakumar from Singapore and Harry (Harish) Chopra from Perth. Renewing ties is fun and while it’s not like we meet every day, if I’m in Bombay, Singapore, Perth or New York I will make sure to call them and at least have dinner and a few drinks. Main thing is we are friends all over again.

In my search for old friends, my Eureka moment was when Victor Rodrigues, Bombay’s celebrity dentist, emailed me after he read a column I wrote in DNA. Victor, like Alan, was one of my idols at Court Royal in the Lane. He did this Elvis hair and sang rock ’n’ roll with abandon; his “Hard Headed Woman” still haunts my memory.

Funny though: both Alan and Victor had younger brothers, who were actually my friends. But the older guys became heroes for me because they were TEENAGERS! They had absolutely no need, according to the serious senior-junior hierarchy of those days, to engage with a pre-teen, vegetarian, Gujarati sod.

Nostalgia is a theme that Homer has written about with passionate, poetic elegance; Milan Kundera did a modern prosaic version. Mine is merely a journalistic report that rambles through the 20th and 21st century. There is an echo of Homer in my experiences, though. Despite the allures of Circe and the Sirens, I left America to come back to India; and I had hoped to find the olive tree just as I had left it: older but fecund; familiar but new; and always a defining feature.

Alas, just this morning I received a message from Shawn Fleming Rodrigues, Victor’s younger brother, who has lived in Court Royal forever…he is a friend of my brother, who turned 60 this year. “Byculla has changed so drastically and regrettably not for the better, that I feel that the old Byculla was my past life and this is a reincarnation,” he said.

Everywhere, they honor days gone by with respect and a touch of nostalgia. Court Royal and Christ Church Lane could have been treasured and conserved as a wonderful example of middle class values and lifestyles rooted in cultural diversity.

India seems to kill the past with its brutish reality!

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Shanghai Surprise - The Heritage of Global Origins

Shanghai: This city, the largest in the world, was never on my bucket list. Now, I want to go back to hang out and discover the promise it revealed on an abbreviated trip. What a wonderful town! Just an off-the-top assessment: this city was born global and has embraced, unlike Bombay, its international heritage. 

So here's the thing: you land at the Pudong International Airport and get the sense of desolate grandeur and last-mile incompetence that you see at Delhi's T3 white-elephant terminal. The difference is the immigration officials all looked very professional; there were no casual "supervisors" hanging about; no officious flunkies escorting VIPs; the security men were real, not guys scratching their privates. 

Our designated chauffer was waiting with a graphically soothing placard; young fellow who spoke English and was exceptionally polite. He drove us on wonderful, well-lit expressways to our hotel. We couldn't see much of the city because of the smog but the lights on the highway were bright and we zoomed into the Pudong city center with the smoothness you can only associate with Western transit.

My lack of enthusiasm for the trip-to attend an Asian PR conference-was challenged by my two daughters who accompanied me. "Get over it, Dad. It'll be great," they chorused, brushing aside my concern about language and my Indian jaundiced eye. I was just 13 in 1962 when China delivered the knockout punch that sent the burgeoning republic of India into a tizzy from which it is still to recover.

On my own, I would have checked into the hotel, attended the conference and done the regulatory sightseeing, eaten the standard five-star hotel food and come away marveling at the city with its colored-light modernity.  With my daughters in attendance, we traipsed through the Huangpu and Xuhui districts and saw parts of the city that I probably would never have visited, especially when the day temperature was two degrees Celsius and windy.

Shanghai is seared in my memory because of my daughters; the one is the mother of my precocious granddaughter; the other a New York sophisticate. They are so cool and so well-informed that I just let them take me here, there and everywhere.  We walked through the old town, wandered through Xintiandi, the upscale part of the French Concession neighborhood that also boasts of the home of the suave Zhou Enlai (Chou En-lai), who served as the premier of China from 1949 t0 1976.

Zhou was the interlocutor for Jawaharlal Nehru at the Bandung Conference of 1955, in which the first principles of the Nonaligned Movement were articulated; a year before in Peking (now Beijing), Zhou signed with Nehru the Panchsheel Treaty, binding India and China to an agreement of peaceful coexistence.

As we walked through Xintiandi, I marveled at the restoration; here was a city that embraced it European heritage…so unlike any Indian city.  My time in Shanghai was cut short because of a family emergency but we did get a chance to walk around People's Square and take in the Bund, a gorgeous esplanade on the Huangpu River, with its barges and bridges. 


From the Bund, you can see in shimmering watercolor impressionism, the high rises of Pudong, which my girls called the Gurgaon of Shanghai; looking to our back, we saw the traditional Tudor-style buildings, including the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, where we stopped to have afternoon tea.

We walked and walked, marveling at the sheer exuberance of street life even in the cold two-degree-Celsius weather.  As we followed Nanjing Road to People's Square, I kept thinking that the Bombay of the 1950s that I knew and loved could have become like this, except power-grubbing politicians, venal bureaucrats and apathetic citizens destroyed it and condemned it to be a slum. 

Unlike any city in India, Shanghai seems to be livable for the average citizen; you can actually walk the streets, which you cannot in any Indian city; its riches seem to have been shared with the people. Roads, sidewalks, gardens, public art and mass transport; they have it all in spades; they also have preserved and enhanced their colonial heritage. "Inclusive growth" is not a slogan here; it's real. 

In the most superficial assessment, if one is to compare to Shanghai to Bombay (and frankly, there's no comparison), it is clear that Shanghai is in a totally different league, comparable to Paris. Duh! It is called Paris of the East.

Shanghai has almost 24 million people compared to Bombay's 21 million. There can be no question that life seems to be hugely better in the Chinese city. These comparisons are impressionist, I grant you. There's no mistaking, however, the dignity of common people and the preponderance of public goods. If Bombay is part of a democracy (and this is dubious, given the thugs of the Shiv Sena) and Shanghai of  an authoritarian system, then without any survey or anything,  just looking at the ground reality, I'd rather as an ordinary citizen be living in Shanghai.

In the end, two things stood out. One, the Chinese political system, opaque though it is, seems to throw up decisive leaders, committed to enhancing the public interest. Two, the life of citizens seems to be light years ahead of the daily hassles, slum culture and criminal violence in Indian cities.

As for the race between India and China, I am saddened to report India never even made it to the starting line. It is very likely, as a friend told me, that India is to China as Mexico is to the United States.


This article appeared on Times of India website on January 29, 2013.

Shanghai Surprise - The Heritage of Global Origins

Monday, December 3, 2012

Nostalgia live

We should have been called the Magnificent Seven. I thought of this 40 years later. There were seven of us; one died; one didn’t come. So we were left with the Infamous Five last weekend. Not to bore you or anything but aside of me there were Harry, Brave, Chua and Mirchi, (forgive me guys for using the given names), who were inseparable at Baroda’s MS University’s Faculty of Technology.  Harry came from Perth in Western Australia, Chua came from Singapore and Brave and Mirchi came from Bombay for the reunion.
Before anything else, I can only say that it was an amazing feat for busy people in their sixties; not that anyone behaved that old. The guards were down and the conversation was not that different than the ones we had sitting together on the wall of the MSU hostels. Except there was a lot more depth, given the 40 years of experience since we last met together. We talked about our lives and our time together in Baroda. And the swear words!So Harry has a respected career in the oil business and is still the innocent; Mirchi runs a successful engineering business and still remains the best standup comic I have known; Brave actually runs the world with his phenomenal perspective on the human condition; Chua, the genius, virtually ran Citibank globally and now plays golf.
When we knew each other in Baroda, we were mostly broke and way behind the academic curriculum. We had dreams. And one way or the other, we may have realized them. Chua, aka Venky, put the whole thing in perspective: “We are normal people, married to the same woman for all these years, with wonderful children and now grandchildren.” And Venky, being Chua, asked: “Are we really boring people?”
This whole business of the reunion began when I sent my friends a reminder of the fabulous stuff we did in Baroda as mere kids. We were in the Shakespeare Society; we ran a newspaper called Implosion; we set up Beaux Esprit, an event management unit that held several rock concerts. Plus most of all, we went to almost every night show in the local theater, regardless of the movie. We even saw a South Indian move called “Danger Biscuit,” which Venky says he uses to screw everyone’s happiness in the charade game.
In the two days we spent together, we felt connected. Yes, the connection was engineering school and the hostels; but there seemed to be more: why would anyone come from all over the world to have dinner?  Clearly, we all liked each other, never mind that we may have had differences. What was obvious we enjoyed each other and admired what we had done in the 40 years that had passed. Actually, the relationship now was more civil and fond than we ever experienced in Baroda. Most of us had met individually over the years but never together. 
The reunion was unique: we all realized it was a special occasion. The chances of this ever happening again are remote. My view, echoed by Venky, is we should meet again; life has raced past and it is wonderful to put a brake on it and catch up with friends who influenced it in ways we just now begin to realize. We all got along in fabulous way. Plus we had better food and drinks since we last met together in some dhaba in Baroda.
Our reunion got me thinking. When we last met together, we had the world ahead of us in which to make a mark. Forty years later, we’ve done what we can in many different ways. The general take among us was we’ve all not done too badly. My take on this is we can do much more. Regardless of what I may or may not have achieved, my trip in life has been to reach out to friends who have influenced my life. Turns out they are all high achievers.It is more satisfying than any professional or financial achievement. 
The post Diwali weekend with old friends endorsed two things: one, all my friends have done well for themselves; two, all our wings have roots in our undergraduate days of a basic life that may be difficult for us to live today. All I can hope is this reunion will lead to new relationships and that we can meet again and explore beyond hellos the ties that bind us.
For me, Marcel Proust said it: Let us be grateful to people who make us happy, they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom.
What a wonderful weekend after the triumph of good over evil!


This article appeared on Times of India website on November 21, 2012

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.
http://blogs.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/capital-letter/entry/bombay-journal-street-of-dream

Friday, March 30, 2012

Bombay Journal 2

The Irresistible Charm of the Siren City

Delhi’s Terminal 3 reflects the city’s crude unease with modernity; Bombay’s airport has the casual ease of a city used to egalitarian urban life. When you land in Bombay, you feel part of the human driving force that creates jobs, provides entertainment, choices of lifestyles and the pulsating beat of urbanity. I may be biased but this is the city where I grew up, using public transport, walking the streets, comfortable in my middle class existence.

It was only when the division took place of the erstwhile Bombay state into Gujarat and Maharashtra and I was yanked from my predictable and inclusive middle class existence, I realized that that there are Gujarati and Marathi, Hindu and Muslim, Brahmin and others, rich and poor. I sort of knew that but that was when I understood that these diversities can be used for political gain.

Today, the entire political conversation is built on these divides. All of India is riven with differences. Bombay, however, still retains the streak of egalitarianism.  There is incredible wealth; abject poverty; but the beat goes on like it did when I was growing up here. The Siren City boasts a sophistication that is far removed from Delhi’s bastard culture of privilege and braggadocio. Yes, it is my city that the brigands of the various senas are bent on destroying. Bombay’s heritage of sophisticated cosmopolitanism is threatened.

Unlike Delhi, where citizens are thugs; in Bombay, thugs hold citizens to ransom. On a recent trip, I was stuck in heavy traffic on the Worli Causeway (soon to be renamed Chhatrapati Shivaji Causeway by the thugs?) and we inched along. I was struck by the fact that no one tried to weave through traffic or honk.

I was on my way to meet my friend Father Lawrie Ferrao, one of my oldest friends. He is the director of the highly-regarded Xavier Institute of Communication. I first met Lawrie in 1958 in Hilda Pimenta’s fifth standard class at St Xavier’s High School in Dhobi Talao. I was a forgettable kid in the school that boasted many students who went on to make their mark in the world: the most prominent being Sunil Gavaskar. There were others not quite as publicly acclaimed but stars in their own right in various fields: space science, mathematics, anthropology, petroleum, journalism, law, business and what have you.

When I finished with the school in 1965, I lost touch with Lawrie and only re-established contact with him at a reunion of the class of 1965 in January 2008. Taken aback that he was a Jesuit priest and then the principal of St Stanislaus in Bandra, I spent a lot of time with him at the meet. In the event, he was the priest who conducted the service at my daughter’s wedding in St Elizabeth Church in Ucassaim, Goa, our other home. Thus, we re-established our friendship

We spent a few hours together, not just reliving the old times but discussing various issues including the state-of-the-art of communications education and urban governance and everything else over lunch at the highly-overrated Khyber Restaurant in Kala Ghoda.

The previous night I had dinner with my friends Almona and Sidharth Bhatia. She is the publisher of GQ in India and Sid has just written a fabulous book called Cinema Moderne: The Navketan Story. We talked late into the evening about many things but mainly about Dev Anand and how he represented modernity and hope in an India shackled by socialist dogma and Gandhian claptrap about village republics

Note: For my friends who, like me, hold Gandhi in high esteem. Gandhi was a post modern thinker; his ideas were seminal and far ahead of his time. However, the idea of a self sufficient village presumes full literacy and civic awareness.  He preached civil disobedience and said nary a word about free and compulsory primary education.

Coming back to my Bombay experience, it is now increasingly clear that the political battle is between those who endorse Bombay’s cosmopolitan character and the thugs, who would drag the city into moffusil obscurity. Call it Bombay versus Mumbai. The latter seem to be winning by sheer muscle.

And so Bombay is a conundrum: you see in it hope for India’s future and you despair that is held hostage by thugs. What happens in Bombay over the years will determine whether India will live up to its promise as player on the world stage; or will slide into the chaos of a fourth world country.

Finally, an explanation on why I call Bombay the “Siren City.”  It is an island; it is seductive in its decrepit charm; yet it draws people even though they may end up on the rocks. The people who have always lived there or consider it home have an Odyssean worldview:  “all that comes to pass on the fertile earth, we know it all!”

Bombay being Bombay, I have to end this with a line written by Majrooh Sultanpuri and sung by Mohammed Rafi: “Yeh hai Bombay meri jaan.” Mumbai just doesn't work in that song. Never mind it was a rip-off of an American folk ballad called “My Darling Clementine.”

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Bombay Journal

Deja Vu All Over Again…

Three friends, 45 years later, sit in a palatial Khar apartment in this siren city, enjoying the cocktail hour. Dinner is a couple of hours away. This is the first time that I can remember that Yogi, Mirchi and I have sat together since our Baroda days. Sure, we’ve met en famille…in Bombay, in New York, in New Jersey. In Baroda, we met every day, largely because we were roommates at different times. So this evening was special.

In the course of the evening, we exchanged a few desultory comments about Baroda and the people we knew then. Mostly the conversation was about today and things happening in our lives. Mirchi regaled us about his fumbles with remote controlled curtains in his bedroom; Yogi about how he has given up his crusade against honking and rash driving in Bombay; I showed them pictures of my freshly-minted granddaughter. It was wonderful to be interested in each other’s lives today and not go into a nostalgic shoosha about the good old days and what have you.

Even if I do say so myself; I am mostly the guy who makes the effort to keep in touch with old friends.  In the past few decades, I have connected with friends from the 1950s, 1960s and onward. It's been marvelous because they responded with enthusiasm. The key to sustaining renewed relationships is to eschew stuff like: "remember the time" and get with the modern day program. Most renewals have succeeded in the sense that we catch up with great eagerness from time to time; the ones that have fallen by the wayside were the ones that could not get beyond the magic of the old days.

What was remarkable about the reunion was that the nostalgia was about the established friendship, not about what we did when we were in our twenties. We were all engineering students enrolled in the Faculty of Technology at the MS University in Baroda; we were from Bombay and in love with the city. In Baroda, we were inseparable, together every day: dinner, movies, late night chai; living in a world of our own. It wasn’t always smooth; there were ups and downs. But we were young and sure to have our way.

Then the busy years went rushing by us; as the Baroda experience came to an end, we drifted apart. For more than a decade, we lost touch, making our way in the world: establishing careers, building families. The bond apparently survived. I reached out to them and they were happily receptive and over the years, we built a whole new relationship that peaked with the dinner in Bombay this week.

We laughed, ribbed each other and were comfortable together as though 45 years were a blink of the eyes. If you could rewind to Baroda, you’d see the three guys, now in their sixties, really hadn’t changed much, except they were older and definitely wiser. There was much familiar laughter and in our hearts, the dreams were still the same.

In the sixties, we defined friendship; 45 years later, we were redefining nostalgia. No syrupy memories of the past; no obsessive recall of the days gone but robust conversations about today, secure in the feeling that our friendship had withstood the test of time. There was no looking back, only hope we could do this again whenever we had the chance. Our lives are different but the bonds hold firm. We don’t really need to see each other every day; just to get together every opportunity we can get.

It really doesn’t get better than this. My trip in life is to link up with old friends, to establish new ties based on old camaraderie. In that, I am the luckiest person in the world: reviving old friendships is to renew life and to keep you young and fun loving. On that score alone, I may have a ticket to the place where angels play harps and it is always springtime. That evening in Bombay, it felt like I was there already.





Monday, July 25, 2011

Breaking News: Drowning Out a Tragedy

Blasts Show Up Television News

What exactly were the television news crews after when they fanned out in the broken precincts of Bombay on the evening of the serial bomb blasts? They were intrusive, unmindful of the privacy of injured citizens and the grief of relatives of dead victims. Screaming and shouting, they collared eyewitnesses to ask them what they had seen. Worse, they tramped into hospital emergency rooms to focus on blood and gore. The result was a jumble of accounts. Piecing the fragments together, the picture that emerged was distorted, like looking at a high definition satellite television picture in a rainstorm.

As the news spread via television, the confusion seemed to grow. The jumbled pictures and stray, disjointed comments from shell-shocked citizens did little to reveal the dimensions of the tragedy. Amid the hysterics, rumors emerged to heighten public anxiety. Emergency services took time to get to the blast sites; police officers at the venues appeared clueless and the government response hesitant.

The next day, July 14, the focus changed completely. News channels seemed to have decided to go a step beyond reporting the news. Instead, they came up with an angle: enough of praising Bombay’s resilience; time to hit out at politicians, bureaucrats and policemen for failing to prevent the attacks. Their reporters waded into trains, scoured the city, looking for the “man in the street.” They ambushed hapless citizens and made them perform to a script.

There are two problems with this: one, can journalists in reporting an event come to it with a premeditated slant? Can editors accept their reporters passing off opinions as facts? Man-on-the-street interviews are useful as local color but they can’t be the story. Or chasing celebrities for their views on the tragedy? This latter approach can only be in pursuit of ratings.

Two, what does it mean when you say Bombay is resilient? A city can have a character and Bombay certainly does have a business-like approach to life. Residents of this city carry on efficiently despite crumbling infrastructure, slums, the underworld, housing shortages, milling crowds and a general sense of decay. That is resilience but it is on display everyday, not just at times of crisis.

It appears that the day after the blasts, the channels decided that “resilience” was an old bromide with no traction among viewers. You would have thought they would have upbraided their reporters for hyping the tragedy. Instead, they sent them, armed with a line, to barge into the tragedy once again: hectoring citizens to read from their script. The crews set out afresh to interview citizens in different parts of the city, asking leading questions. The story angle was clear: left to its own devices, resilient Bombay was angry.

“This city has been the victim of many terrorist blasts. Aren’t you angry and tense? Aren’t you tired of being called resilient and left to fend for yourself? Aren’t you tired of being taken for granted by the government?” The questions flew thick and fast as did the changing headlines on television screens. “Resilient, tired, angry,” they screamed. The television news channels seemed to have decided on the line; their field reporters goaded citizens into “confirming” the story in front of the cameras.

The journalistic practices of the television news media could be the subject of scholarly analysis some distance from “breaking news.” What is of immediate concern is that such ambulance-chasing tactics stoked public insecurities. Television reporters instigated citizens to berate the government in prime time.

This is not to suggest that criticism of the government is unacceptable. Indeed, authorities must be held answerable if they fail or are slow to respond. To do this, reporters need to ferret out hard facts. The analysis can only be effective at some distance from the events. Instant judgments spread fear and rumor at a time when public anxiety is running high.

Where they had a chance to calm things down, bring people together in the face of a major terrorist attack, the news channels took a lowly road. They hyped the events and indulged in the worst kind of speculation and rumor. Sensationalism reigned supreme.

In the face of shrill attempts by news channels to show up its inadequacies, the government response was restrained. The home minister and the prime minister winged their way to Bombay within 24 hours of the incidents. The prompt steps by the leadership blunted the edge of the media’s hysterical coverage.

Finally, Maharashtra chief minister Prithviraj Chavan made an appearance on all major channels and made some candid remarks about the strengths and limitations of government. His bravura performance took the wind out of media hysterics. His direct manner did much to defuse the media hype. His comments went much further than anyone in the Congress or the Opposition reckoned. Chavan was a refreshing voice on television. He spoke with a sincerity that has never been seen before. He appeared at once humble and fully in control, candid and unafraid to speak his mind.

Finally, it is a matter of some irony that the media hype may have actually denied the perpetrators of the Bombay blasts their day in the sun. Maybe India has found a way to deal with terrorism: bury it in hype, trample it in public debate. If only real people didn’t die or get injured!


Copyright Rajiv Desai 2011

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Goa Journal

The Anxiety of Freedom

Panjim: The beginning is mundane. You arrive at a jetty on this capital city’s iconic waterfront, tumble out of the car, make an awkward climb to a floating jetty and jump into the boat. After that, it is a liberating experience.

Within minutes, the speedboat set off to explore the Mandovi River and its backwaters. We flitted in and out of waterways and their littorals, the mangroves that seemed to eat into the river as our boat maneuvered past overhanging branches through the twisting, winding backwaters. A calm descended on us; the outside word ceased to exist.

For a fleeting moment of schadenfreude, we thought about friends in Delhi and Bombay, stuck in traffic jams and all manner of urban discomfiture. As we floated through the backwaters, it seemed to me we had chanced upon an undiscovered world. And as we emerged from this mysterious water world back into the mainstream, we were confronted by sweeping vistas on offer by the mighty Mandovi.

Rivers play an important role in the life of India. They are considered sacred but modern India treats them as sewers, dumping waste and poisons in them. Most rivers in India are dirty and dying. The Mandovi is, in stark contrast, clean and is used for commerce and transport. Now, it is being increasingly used for pleasure.

And so it was for pleasure that we found ourselves rolling on the river. With the wind upon our faces and wonder in our eyes, we floated in the waters and saw a Goa that is mind-boggling; away from the beaches and the tourist spots. Time stood still here and the two hours stretched to an eternity.

The Mandovi tidal basin is an intricate system of wetlands, marshes and paddy fields, intersected by canals, dykes, bays, lagoons and creeks. The river and the backwaters are governed by regular tides that reach up to 20 miles upstream.

Our two-hour long experience on the Mandovi filled us with reverence for the majesty of nature. The river seems eternal; I use the word “seems” because it is impossible to grasp and define eternity in terms of years, centuries or millennia. And understanding this, the use of “seems,” puts you face to face with spirituality and its temporal offshoots: faith and communion.

Herman Hesse in his book Siddhartha wrote about “the restless departures and the search for stillness at home; the diversity of experience and the harmony of a unifying spirit; the security of religious dogma and the anxiety of freedom."

Over the years, I have come to celebrate diversity, to value harmony. Now I am concerned about religion and its effect on, “the anxiety of freedom.” These imponderables have occupied my thoughts. I have often wondered, wouldn’t it be so much simpler to be a man of faith?

But where do you place your faith?

Of all the religions, I have always been intrigued by Catholicism and its celebration of faith and communion, week after week; generation after generation; across communities, nations and cultures. Each Sunday, believers go to church and reaffirm the dogma that Christ was born of Immaculate Conception; He was crucified and rose from the dead. This they call proclaiming the mystery of faith. They receive the wafer and wine believing them to be the body and blood of Jesus Christ, which they call the Holy Communion, the Eucharist, the thanksgiving.

That afternoon on the boat, contemplating the majesty of the river and its various branched waterways, I began to get a glimmer of the spirituality of faith and the mystery of communion.

And no, I have not found religion. I still remain firmly a skeptic. But that experience on the Mandovi will make me a tad slower to challenge matters of faith. Call it the anxiety of freedom.

On our way back to the dock, we stopped midstream for a libation and a view of Panjim as the lights came on. It was a spectacular sight; the neat laidback city on the estuary came alive with its nocturnal personality. It was not Manhattan or Chicago but from the darkness enveloping the river, it was a sign of civilization. In the end, despite the majesty of nature, the lights of Panjim were comforting, a sign that in the end, civilization is what this world is about.

As we returned to shore, we were forced to contemplate mundane problems like where to have dinner. We settled on a restaurant in Candolim, the hip and happening place in north Goa. When we reached there, a solo singer was in attendance.

When we walked in, he launched into the Louis Armstrong 1968 classic vocal that celebrates nature, humanity, eternity: the wondrous mystery of life: What a wonderful world...yeah!


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, June 29, 2009

A Goan Retrospective

Pictures at an Exhibition

Watercolors


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


***

Portraits


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


***

Landscapes


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


***

Gallery


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


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


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


Copyright Rajiv Desai 2008