Wednesday, July 18, 2018
Tuesday, July 16, 2013
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.
Wednesday, February 6, 2013
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
Wednesday, April 11, 2012
A version of this article appears on The Times of India website.
Friday, March 30, 2012
Thursday, March 29, 2012
Monday, July 25, 2011
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
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
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
Sitting on Goa’s northern
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
But we have fast-forwarded the story by about 50 years. What was the man doing at
So let’s pause and go back to the 1950s. We are in
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
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
Named after the school it abutted,
(For the record, the
The neighborhood was home to
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
A picture of this wondrous place that was at that time not part of
Embroiled in this vivacious diversity, Marco began to believe that all of
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
Last year, I made my first trip to
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
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
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
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
Every now and then, when the day’s hurly burly’s done, we repair to a small café on the backwaters of the
Sometimes we head off to Panjim, the capital, at the mouth of the expansive
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
Nestled between river-riven paddy fields and a picturesque hill, our village does not feature on a local map of
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
The reason I was in
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
Copyright Rajiv Desai 2008